As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Lindbom.
Jennifer Lindbom, AICP is President & Founder of CAS Group LLC, a trusted engineering, urban planning, and program management firm providing services across the US and worldwide. Jennifer has more than 20 years of domestic and international experience in urban planning, public engagement, and project management. She has worked in a variety of complex environments including neighborhoods, cities, economic zones, and multi-jurisdictional regions on issues ranging from transportation planning to redevelopment, industrial development, and post-disaster recovery and resiliency. Jennifer employs collaboration, proven strategies, and genuine dialogue to support clients and communities successfully plan for and create a better future.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I never really expected to be an entrepreneur running a boutique engineering, urban planning, and program management firm working on everything from transit to $1 billion power projects. But, from childhood, I have often taken the path less traveled. I’ve managed to stay true to myself each step of the way and seized unexpected opportunities on the journey.
People looked at me sideways when I got a BA in Anthropology and a master’s degree in Urban Planning in graduate school at NYU. “What kind of job can you get with those degrees?” Whereas, I saw the important relationship between people and place, and have dedicated the better part of my life to that work. After grad school, I worked in the UK while awaiting my US Peace Corps assignment, which eventually came through. I spent nearly four years in the Philippines as a volunteer and then an Asian Development Bank consultant.
I returned to NYC right before 9/11. It was heart-wrenching. I decided to delay plans to return overseas in order to be involved rebuilding the city I called home. I continued to work with communities across the US on planning and development projects as a consultant based out of NYC, where I met my future husband. On our honeymoon, we made the decision to take jobs in Abu Dhabi. On our return from Abu Dhabi — while on vacation in Japan — we found out we were expecting our first son. Maternity leave being what it is in the US, I did not immediately look for a job. Then, an opportunity to launch CAS Group presented itself and I was an entrepreneur with a three-month old in tow.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Our launch is probably the most interesting and has some great lessons for entrepreneurs. In 2009, I returned home to New York City after more than two years working in Abu Dhabi on an expansive new port and industrial zone greenfield project. Enroute I learned I was expecting my first child, which certainly put a damper on my desire to look for a new job as we all know maternity leave is relatively short in the US and childcare costs in Manhattan are astronomical. I had always considered the possibility of starting my own consulting firm and the opportunity presented itself when my son was three months old. I got a call from a former colleague asking me to join a project in Nashville, TN on a full-time basis help plan the long-term recovery efforts in the wake of devastating flooding. It was a crazy idea. It was many miles from home.
I could have easily said, “thanks, but no thanks.” But, instead, I took a leap. Every entrepreneur should be prepared to seize an opportunity presents itself.
I also had a lot of asks. I didn’t want to be employed by another firm, I wanted to be hired as a consultant so I could launch CAS Group. I would need a two-bedroom apartment for the duration of the assignment. Grandparents had to come to take care of the baby (which they were fortunately quite happy to do). My husband got approval to work from his employer’s Nashville office. At any turn, I was prepared for a “no,” but it’s critical to be able to talk to clients and others about what is needed to successfully deliver your services.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is not so much a mistake as a funny situation. CAS Group was founded in 2010 and I was the sole employee. In 2014, I recruited a partner and we began to expand our portfolio of projects. We were preparing for growth and professionalizing the operation. A key component of that was hiring a part-time bookkeeper. We had not yet secured office space, so I was working from home with two children under the age of four. Today, your readers are familiar with remote work and the high jinks that can occur, but in 2014 it was not common to young children as the backdrop to business. I still fondly remember — and cringe — when I remember the times our bookkeeper came to my home office to find her desk littered with crayons and Legos. Or, the time she was working while my four-year-old had a Skype call with his grandmother in California. Our bookkeeper was so professional and so patient considering the circumstances. Six years on, upon returning to my home office as a result of the pandemic, I’ve lovingly dubbed my kids “the Interns,” since they still manage to make their presence known while I’m working. That bookkeeper who managed to balance our books while toddlers wandered her office is now our Office Manager.
There are many lessons for me in that memory. First and foremost, the advice I have for other small businesses is to build a strong financial foundation from the start. For us, that meant many things from setting up business banking accounts, securing a business credit card (to start building a credit history), to paying the partners a salary, and, most importantly, hiring a bookkeeper. At CAS Group, we hold ourselves to a high standard of integrity and informed decision-making in providing services to clients and also in how we manage our business. Hiring the bookkeeper was also one of the first steps in outsourcing the tasks that someone else could perform better and more cost-effectively than I ever could. Note that “outsourcing” in my mind doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily someone outside our organization, but rather it is no longer a task that sits on my desk and takes my focus from the important tasks that genuinely require my time and attention. Along with our Office Manager who is an integral part of our organization, we have relationships with a variety of professionals from lawyers to accountants and payroll companies that we use on a regular basis to review contracts, weigh in on employment questions, and more. Don’t be put off by the hourly cost of these professionals because your time is likely more expensive if you are trying to learn about an issue that is not in your wheelhouse.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people who have helped me throughout my career. In terms of CAS Group, I am most grateful to our first client, which helped me launch the firm, and our biggest client, whose faith in our capabilities led to impressive projects that many of our larger competitors would have celebrated securing. It is simultaneously humbling and a gratifying achievement when decision-makers entrust us with their projects.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Despite my life-long search for the answer to release and relieve stress, I am possibly the last person that you should ask that question. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all solution, we each have to figure out what works for us. For me, there are two things that relieve stress. The first — which perhaps seem obvious — is to be prepared, which can require longer and intense work. The more comfortable I am with our preparations, the more informed I am of the content, and the more thoughtful my decision, the less stressed or concerned I feel. Deep-breathing or long walks are not a substitute for preparation and knowledge in my business. The second tool I use to relieve stress is to clear my schedule or schedule something fun for AFTER the milestone. I can work towards important milestones know that there will be an opportunity to reflect, relax, and recharge on the horizon.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Race, diversity, equality, and inclusion have been an integral part of my world view from a very young age. I grew up in the suburbs in NY and attended a fantastic, diverse high school. I did undergrad and graduate school at NYU in the middle of New York City. I spent years working and traveling overseas in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East — I’m at 51 countries and counting. These experiences have helped me develop a deep appreciation for people from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives and the contributions that they can — and should be making — in all aspects of society, including business. There are three main reasons to have a diverse executive team: your customers, your team, and your impact. The 2020 US Census documents our country’s changing demographics, such as an aging population, increased diversity in younger age groups, continued growth in urban areas, and more. Businesses need leadership that is representative of its customer base — or its target customer base — to speak to the market, representative of its team members to have perspective and credibility and have diversity to effectively guide the impact business can and will have on the community at large.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
There are plenty of programs — and buzz words — that relate to mitigating negative impacts and promoting positives ones: ESG, Sustainability, Social Responsibility. Although every business may not take on a large-scale initiative, there are efforts that businesses big and small can do to begin to the move the needle. The first step is to expand the definition of who the business serves to include shareholders or owners as well as customers, employees, suppliers, and communities. Next, document the direct and indirect impacts (both good and bad) of the business on those stakeholders in the here and now. Finally, think about how the business can recalibrate even in small ways to create a more inclusive, representative, equitable, and — I would add — healthy and sustainable society. At CAS Group we’ve created a Mission statement that reflects our commitments to our clients, our staff, and our community that both hangs prominently in our offices and genuinely guides our business decisions.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
For business of all sizes, the CEO is the face of the company, sets the tone of the organization, and ultimately provides the leadership necessary to balance stakeholder expectations, business operations, and the bottom line (or, hopefully, the double bottom line). Ultimately, the buck stops with the CEO.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think that people — including myself at times — often look to successful executives and entrepreneurs and assume that they are endowed with exceptional business acumen and insights that lead to success. In reality, long-term success is often built upon years of working to get the top and upon the lessons learned from the missteps (or failures) of the past. Success at the top is not having all the answers but knowing where to find them and how to implement them.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I feel fortunate that throughout my career I have had the pleasure of working with professionals — clients and colleagues — who value capability and delivery (regardless of gender). At the same time, there are a few challenges that quite honestly confront me at the moment that may not affect my male counterparts. I would love to have a larger circle of women role models or mentors in the A&E industry. I think women, myself included, feel a push to be better than male counterparts, because we recognize there may be a unequal on any shortcoming. Finally, as a working mom, I’m the CEO of my business and my family. There are many goals, targets, and responsibilities that can be assigned in a business. There are as many goals, targets, and responsibilities in raising a family that cannot so easily be assigned to others and some that you would never want to outsource. Many working dads I know are deeply engaged and dedicated to their kids and couch teams, attend events, and help around the house. But — and without any disrespect — they are usually told where to be and when. It’s the moms — many of whom work — who are constantly managing schedules, sign-ups, pick-ups, teacher gifts, play dates, meals, babysitters, doctors’ appointments, summer camps, and so much more. I cannot say that there is an easy answer to this conundrum, so in the meantime many female executives will continue to do double duty.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
My choice of profession has truly been a lifelong passion and pursuit. I thought starting my own company would allow me to be actively engaged in working on compelling projects. The reality has been that more and more of my time is spent running the operation and securing new work than performing it. The Architecture & Engineering sector is generally characterized by individuals who entered the profession….
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
First, you must get comfortable getting out of your comfort zone. Each and every day I am faced with issues that are both unfamiliar AND essential to the success of my business. This relates to my second recommendation that you must be excited about learning new things. I love my chosen field and it brings me great professional satisfaction, but that education and those skills don’t run my business. I had to learn new skills and now consider myself knowledgeable on key aspects of running CAS Group from contracts formation to recruiting, employment law, trademark law, bookkeeping and accounting, marketing, and much more.
Third, you cannot be shy about advocating for your business. This is not just about marketing and business development. It includes building relationships with banks and investors. It includes finding professionals, programs, and incentives that can support your success. For small businesses, there are a wealth of resources including Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business — of which CAS Group is a proud alumni — various programs of the US Small Business Administration, Chambers of Commerce, and much more.
Finally, you cannot fear rejection or failure. To summarize Richard Castle: “Rejection isn’t failure. Failure is giving up.” There will always be bumps along the road, but as an executive you must always pick up the pieces and move forward. Check out Jia Jang’s TED talk “What I Learned from 100 Days of Rejection?” for inspiration (and some humor).
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
At CAS Group, we have been fortunate to have dedicated, hardworking, trustworthy, proactive staff. Is that luck or does it represent our company culture? I am certain that there are excellent recommendations available from academicians and business titans. My advice is relatively simple. Set the tone and model how you expect your team to operate. Be creative and a little spontaneous with team-building activities. Be transparent and available. Finally, be as fair and generous as you can in compensating your team members. There are many factors that can help a team thrive but rewarding them for the value they bring to your business is essential.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am fortunate that CAS Group is in the business of making the world a better place day in and day out. We have projects that engage residents and stakeholders in discussions and decisions about the future of their communities. We design projects that protect coastal communities and make waterfront projects more resilient in the face of a changing climate. We work on projects that provide cleaner power to the grid. In addition to our project portfolio, I go back to our Mission statement that I mentioned earlier. We take very seriously the good jobs that we create that support families and allow for career growth. Finally, we give back in our local community.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You must and will become acquainted with all the aspects of running a business in order to make informed decisions, which is particularly true for small business entrepreneurs.
- Find and utilize trusted professionals to support your business. There are plenty of lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, and other professionals in the marketplace. Use referrals to find ones you think you can work with and engage them. If you trust them, pay them what they’re worth. They will save you time and money well beyond their cost. If you find you don’t like working with them, move on quickly.
- Ask for help when you need it. You are not alone. There are lots of resources available, particularly to small business.
- Learn to delegate effectively. This is probably the hardest for a start-up or small business when you are used to do it all on your own. As you scale, learn to delegate as much as you can as soon as you can without compromising quality.
- Being an entrepreneur is incredibly demanding in terms of time, investment, and energy. But, for many of us, we would dedicate that level of effort to nearly any job. It’s in our DNA. So, starting a business puts you in the driver’s seat and allows you to build something for your future.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’ve spent much of my adult life working on projects that seek to make a positive impact on communities, the economy, or the environment. There are so many valuable causes that deserve support across the globe. But I think it’s worthwhile to look at the small changes we can begin making that compounded over time can have big impacts. In recent years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the global Vision Zero Network that seeks to eliminate traffic facilities and severe injuries. In the US, more than 40,000 people are needlessly killed annually on American streets and thousands more are injured. Although these may be called “traffic accidents,” all drivers — including each of us — have the power to prevent traffic collisions by committing to travel at safe speeds unimpaired or distracted on local streets and highways. The lives of so many depend on it. Check to see if your home is a Vision Zero Community to learn more and take the pledge.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is a magnet that I was given many moons ago that says: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.” Although I certainly have memories of misadventures that make me cringe, there are many, many more calculated risks that I have taken that have created a rich, successful life personally and professionally. I also have a paperweight on my desk with the question: “What would you do if you couldn’t fail?” I have known too many people who have been the greatest obstacle to working toward their dreams. In my 40s, I had my “midlife epiphany” — not a midlife crisis — and realized that time is fleeting. Be true to yourself. Take chances. Seek progress not perfection.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
It would be Guy Raz! He is both the host of the podcast “How I Built This,” on which he interviews innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists about the movements they’ve built. I’d love to chat with him about the most important lessons that would help me successfully continue on my own entrepreneurial journey.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Guy Raz is also the host of WOW in the World — a science podcast for curious kids — and would earn me some cred with my young sons.