On Thursday, April 6th, I attended a full-day RISE Leadership Summit with GiANT hosted by the Eugene Chamber of Commerce. I am happy to report I did leave the day with some new tools and new inspiring contacts. The cherry on top was being honored at the afternoon reception as one of 4 Leaders of the Year finalists.
Spoiler alert and hearty congratulations to Jessica Price with the University of Oregon, this year’s winner of the Women Business Leaders, Leader of the Year award. She is truly awesome, and I could not imagine a more deserving winner.
As I sat with my wife and fellow nominees from different Eugene companies, I was humbled and grateful to be recognized among them. With 15 years as a civil engineer and project manager, my career is evolving to that of a group leader, manager, and mentor (while also engineering and managing projects). I’m constantly learning, but I know that leadership takes knowing yourself, listening more than talking, applying your unique strengths, and constantly recalibrating to your team’s needs and dynamics.
The Downtown Athletic Club ballroom was filled. My whole office was in attendance. My panic about public speaking was turned up to 11. After some introductions, a video played featuring Matt Keenan, a man who proved his wisdom by hiring me when I was a totally green engineer, and has been my manager, mentor, colleague, and friend over the years. He said I made him a better person and all kinds of other nice things that I hope to live up to.
Then I had the mic to address the crowd with my prepared speech. And here it is:
Hi, I’m Anna Backus, and I’m a civil engineer, project manager, and group leader at KPFF Consulting Engineers. I’d first like to express my gratitude. Thanks to the Eugene Chamber for putting this event together, and to Matt Keenan for nominating me. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in doing so. I am very grateful to be up here and in the company of these amazing women.
Like I mentioned, I’m a civil engineer, and when I’m describing my job I’ll often say that if I’m doing it right, you don’t notice. If I do my job right, the built world just works. The tap works when you turn it on, you can safely and easily navigate the streets, you can use pedestrian areas and access buildings whether or not you’re able bodied, and, of course, you never encounter a puddle.
So while I hope you have not noticed my hand in design, I think you will be familiar with our projects. Matt opened the office in 2004 to work on Riverbend Hospital, and since then, we’ve done a number of schools including North, Edison, and Jefferson, parks, including the recently completed Riverfront Park, various University projects including Knight Campus and the new dorms, and housing of all kinds, but closest to my heart, affordable housing including most recently The Nel on 11th and Charnelton.
I’m proud of the work we do in Eugene, and I feel very lucky that answering a Craigslist job posting in 2008 led me to a company that believes you find success by following your passion, puts an emphasis on sustainability, and always looks for the best solution instead of just the usual one.
I have had all the supportive leadership and resources to grow that someone could hope for, but sometime deep into the couple years of forced introspection that Covid brought, I realized that I had never worked for a woman in my career as an engineer. I want to be clear that there are women in all levels of leadership at KPFF, but we are a rare enough breed that through happenstance or bad luck, I had never had the opportunity to work for them. I resolved in that moment that I would be the last generation that could say that. I made it my goal to make sure that we not only did the easy part and hired women and BiPOC folks, but also created a culture where they are comfortable and can thrive. My desire to see underrepresented communities succeed at KPFF made me push to be the group leader in Eugene when the job became available.
Now, as you know, I’m an engineer, but I’m also a Midwesterner, so open communication does not come naturally to me. So thank God I landed in Eugene. I’ve learned so much from design and construction community here. For the past 15 years, I’ve been able to observe and then participate in discussions with many different viewpoints… always with the goal to make Eugene better. What I’ve seen in those discussions is that being open and straightforward results in the best outcomes. Hearing and respecting everyone’s opinions is the best way to move toward a solution. And, it is clear both that Eugene fosters this type of communication and that it’s far from a universal approach outside of this community.
I was able to take these lessons and use them as a manager. I try to make sure that communication is open and honest, and I approach problems with the assumption that everyone has good intentions and the same goal. In my work life, I honestly did not think I could like anything more than spreadsheets, but leading my team has been the most enjoyable and rewarding thing I’ve done in my career.
To my team: you guys are awesome. We have an office that is collaborative, diverse, and productive. You bolster each other up with your strengths, and don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. And our culture is all you: you bring the open communication, the inventive spirit, and the fun. It is such an honor to work with you, and I can’t wait to see the leaders that you’ll become.