Inclusion and Diversity

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This month, AECOM has devoted the Impact blog to featuring women leaders across the globe. In recognition of these achievements, we asked executive vice president and AECOM general counsel, Carla Christofferson, to share her experiences as a successful business leader.

What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?

One of my biggest challenges has always been getting out of my own way. To get to the next level in leadership, you must be able to adapt to and operate in new or uncomfortable environments.

When faced with challenges, I have to ignore the noise — the little voice in my head telling me that I am going to fail — and take chances. While not every risk has led to success, I’ve learned that 1) when I fail, I’m the one paying the most attention, and 2) failure won’t kill me, and this knowledge has helped me open myself to new opportunities.

On keys to success:

I believe resilience is a fundamental trait of successful people. All workplaces bring challenges, and there are often implicit (sometimes explicit) biases in the system. As women, we must acknowledge that the problem exists, but keep moving forward and not let every challenge knock us off track. The most successful women I know pick their battles wisely, and let the rest roll off their backs.

How have you integrated your personal and professional lives throughout your career?

I think that to have “balance,” you need to take a long view. There have been times in my life when I was consumed with projects or trials, and other times when I had to slow down and tend to pressing personal matters. I try to accept that balance is hardly ever perfect, but can be achieved over the long run.

Talk about a woman who has inspired you.

So many women have inspired me and still do today, but I’ll go with the cliché answer (which is true!): my mom. Married at 18, she hadn’t worked much outside the house while raising five children. My parents divorced when I was in high school and my mom received no financial support from my dad, so after being out of the workforce for more than 20 years, she became a crop adjuster in her mid-40s (dealing with insurance for farm crops in case of hail, drought, etc.) and rose through the ranks. By her retirement at age 75, she was the single highest-ranking woman in her region.

There is a quote by the English poet George Eliot (a nineteenth-century woman who published under a male pseudonym) that I like: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” My mom’s life inspires me in that way; like Eliot, she refused to be limited by society’s restraints. As a result of her example, I’ve never thought it was past the time in my life for me to do anything.

How can we achieve true gender diversity in the workplace?

I don’t think we can achieve true gender diversity in the workplace until we have integrated it more in the home. Even today, women still face enormous societal pressure to be the primary caregiver and manage household matters after they get home from their day jobs — a double burden known as the “second-shift” problem — and it gets tiring.

My husband and I have an alternative arrangement where he works out of the house, which has been a huge benefit to me. However, I still wonder whether I am doing “enough” for my family, and I think that dynamic, more than the work environment itself, impacts overall gender diversity.

Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?

Enjoy the ride more. In the beginning, I was so worried about making a mistake. That fear drove me to work incredibly hard, but I was often so worried that I didn’t pause to enjoy what I was doing as much as I could have. The fact is, you will make some mistakes — we all do. What’s more important is how you recover. So I now subscribe to the old saying — pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start over again.

Carla_89x100Carla J. Christofferson is executive vice president and general counsel, overseeing AECOM’s global legal functions, including risk management, ethics and compliance, SEC-reporting requirements, mergers & acquisitions and other transactional-related legal activities, and leads its team of more than 100 lawyers and compliance professionals. She is a member of AECOM’s executive leadership team at the enterprise level. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Adam, and their two children.
LinkedIn: Carla Christofferson

Originally published Mar 8, 2016

Author: Carla Christofferson