The Importance of Developing a Public Persona

With each opportunity building on prior activities, my SWE-Boston board experience led to increasingly important involvement in other professional societies. This helped to set me on a path of serving on college and industry boards.

By Judith Nitsch, P.E., F.SWE

I have served on the governing boards of local and national professional organizations throughout my career. I’ve also served on two college boards of trustees and four corporate boards. The SWE-Boston board was my first.

In 1975 — my first year out of college — I was invited to serve on the Boston Society of Civil Engineers Section of ASCE’s host committee for the national convention, where I met all of the key senior civil engineers in Massachusetts and ASCE’s national board and staff. These connections were key to future opportunities.

That led to the BSCES board of government, where I became president in 1986-87. I was now a vice president at Allen Demurjian Major & Nitsch, which we sold in 1989, and I started Nitsch Engineering. I immediately joined the American Council of Engineering Companies, becoming chapter president in 1998-99.

Another role that added to my stature was being the national president of CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) Network. I was the 2001 convention co-chair and was elected to the CREW Network national board in 2010 and national president in 2014.

A focus on good governance

Nitsch Engineering is known as a well-run firm with deep expertise. We always had strategic plans, marketing/business development plans, annual budgets, etc., and the firm is now a $20 million business. I learned that having a public persona was important for business development. As a female engineer active in our communities, I became known in many different circles — another key to future board opportunities.

I served on the board of directors of each of the three engineering companies at which I worked. When I became a branch office manager at my first firm at age 25, I was named a vice president of the firm and a member of the board of directors. I had no training in corporate governance and can’t say that my experience on this board was significant for me or that my engagement on the board was critical to the firm.

A year after joining my second firm, I became a member of the board of directors and a shareholder. Much still was decided by the other two older male shareholders; I learned to become part of those conversations.

When I started Nitsch Engineering, I was chairman, and we focused on good corporate governance. When I retired, we had 110 employees, 28 employee shareholders, and a six-person board of directors. We focused on leadership, management, ownership, and governance, so our employees were well-rounded in corporate structure. We also encouraged participation in professional societies so our employees could build their own networks and board skills.

I stepped down as chairman in 2016 and remained a director until my retirement in 2020.

After my firm was named to the Inc. 500 in 1996, Eastern Bank asked me to join its board of corporators, and a few years later, its board of trustees; both are paid positions. The bank went public last year, so now I serve on the board of advisors.

I became a trustee of my alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in 1989; after 22 years I was elected an emerita trustee. A mantra known to board members of nonprofit organizations is that each board member should provide “time, talent, and treasure.” This focus will change over time: As a 35- to 45-year-old trustee at WPI and chair of the facilities committee, I told the other trustees that I was “time and talent” because I knew how to build buildings, but they needed to be “treasury.” Today, I spend less time at WPI but continue to provide talent and treasure.

I was asked to join the board of trustees of the Boston Architectural College — my late husband’s alma mater — after he passed away. I was just elected chair of the board. My WPI board experience was immensely impactful, and I’ve brought some of their best practices to the BAC.

Paying attention and speaking up

In 2012, a long-time colleague from ASCE asked me to join his firm’s board of directors. We had met in 1975 as part of that ASCE convention committee I served on! Pennoni Associates has 1,200 employees — 10 times my firm — so one might wonder what value I could bring. Paying attention and speaking up from one’s unique perspective is key.

For example, about five years ago, our pre-read package included resumes for 16 employees proposed for promotions to corporate officers. I realized that all first names were male, and no last names seemed diverse. The chairman expected a perfunctory approval of this item at the board meeting. I asked if any were minorities, and none were. I shared that there likely would be an unanticipated reaction to this vote: Women and minority employees would think that the leadership of the firm wouldn’t include people like them.

That, of course, was not the intent, although the firm had only three women officers then. They created a training program for their women engineers and invited a female vice president to join in the board meetings. We voted another female officer in the following year. I share this because our role as directors is to look out for the interests of the shareholders of the firm. Turnover is a drain on profits and addressing this potential issue would help reduce turnover.

Because my perspective was different from the other directors, we were able to help the firm shift. The firm hired a DEI manager and now has a diversity subcommittee of the board. I’ve always known that change can only be accomplished once there is awareness of an issue; Pennoni reacted once it became aware.

I became an outside director of Ayers Saint Gross architects in 2017. The invitation stated: “We want to add a second independent board member who understands the A/E industry and has expertise in growing a firm and delivering high-quality services to sophisticated clients.” They had a new president — a woman architect — and knew that adding a female director who had been a CEO would be a plus. I knew the firm and they knew me from our involvement in the Society for College and University Planning. I often spoke at their conferences and always made a point to get to know the key attendees. They knew me by reputation relative to growing a firm, being a business developer, focusing on sustainability, and having a sensitivity to diversity.

Through the years, I have been approached by many other organizations and companies about joining their boards. I am always honored, but being a board member is a serious obligation. I carefully evaluated each opportunity against variables such as my availability, the time commitment, travel, compensation, and my interest and alignment with their mission.

In summary, as my professional society activities as a young engineer led me to board opportunities, I realize my networks have provided those important connections and board recommendations; that C-suite and profit and loss experience is necessary; how strategic thinking is critical; and how having a reputation as someone who isn’t afraid to speak their mind, understands the role of a director, is willing to put the work in, and meets the commitments made also contributed. Each opportunity built on my prior activities. I wasn’t afraid to say no since the opportunity needed to map with where I was in my career and life.

Judith Nitsch, P.E., F.SWE, is the founding principal of Nitsch Engineering, a woman-owned engineering firm with 120 employees, headquartered in Boston with offices in Washington, D.C., and Worcester and Lawrence, Massachusetts. Now retired from her firm, Nitsch is chair of the board of trustees of the Boston Architectural College. She was named a SWE Fellow in 1997 and received the SWE Entrepreneur Award in 2004.