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“We make plans sometimes and the universe doesn’t listen to our plans,” says Linda Rabbitt, (above left) the founder, chair and CEO of one of the country’s most respected and successful commercial contractors. While her statement applies to business challenges, it’s just as true about family and health. At age 32 she was a divorced mom with two daughters, a Master’s degree and some teaching experience – but no business background. A job as a secretary at KPMG led to a marketing position, then to life as an entrepreneur.

Her company, rand* construction, now works for some of the country’s best-known businesses, institutions and news organizations, among others. Click here for a time-lapse view of its work at the Washington Post.

A member of several prestigious boards of directors, she endowed a George Washington University program for women board members, which is now moving to Harvard. That’s not bad for somebody who never took a business course. It’s even more remarkable, because although women make up almost half of the workforce, a 2014 report by the National Women’s Law Center shows only 2.6% are in construction – roughly the same as 30 years ago.

At Morris, Manning & Martin, LLP’s “Amazing Women” Speaker’s Series, Rabbitt shared the lessons she learned in business, and in life.

Be Trustworthy

“You go to people you can trust and rely on… whatever your profession is. If you’re in the service business, trust is the foundation of that. I just tried to be as trustworthy and as honorable as I could. Out of that came some very good things; rand* is the only commercial construction business of its size in D.C. that’s never sued or been sued by a client. Imagine how much goodwill that engendered over the years!”

Compete Toe to Toe

“I saw my industry differently than my competitors did. I saw us as a professional services firm because that’s what I’d come from. And they (her competitors) didn’t like me at all. I walked into many, many rooms for many years where I was not really welcome. But I was there and I showed up every single time – which was annoying to them.”

Build The Right Team

“I didn’t choose resumes; I chose character. I chose people I wanted to spend 10 or 12 or 14 hours (a day) with. I had to figure out what kind of people I wanted to meld together in this group. They ended up being people who are smart and who are nice and really wanted – really desired – to be part of a team. It made us a very effective organization.”

Value Your People

“The blue collar workers were treated very badly and I needed them so much and I respected what they did so much that I treated them very ‘goodly’ – and they told their other friends… It helped grow the ability to produce really excellent work.”

Join Industry Associations

“They (prospective clients) had people they wanted to work with. You couldn’t go through them; you couldn’t go over them; you couldn’t go under them; so I went around them. I went to the end users and I thought well – if I showed them I was a leader in that environment, maybe they would believe I was a leader in my industry.”

Read the Room

“In board service, you have to take big ideas and distill them into well-rationed, well thought-through sound bites. Make your point and get out. You have to do it very quickly. I learned that the easiest way to do that was to really understand the room and understand where everybody was.”

Mistakes Are Blessings in Disguise

“The universe is telling me I need to learn something, so what is it I need to learn…? If you’re not making a mistake, you’re not doing anything. Just please don’t keep making that mistake over and over again.”

Look After Yourself

“Fifteen years ago, I hadn’t had a mammogram in three years because I was ‘too busy.’ My girlfriends really got on me and it turned out I did have breast cancer. Seven surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy later I remembered that it was probably a good wake-up call to start taking care of myself. I have to take care of myself before I can take care of all these other people.”

Decide What’s Important

“I have two near-perfect daughters who are wonderful professionals. They are terrific people. They had to be my best projects . . . . I had to get that right to feel good about who I was as a human being.”

MMM’s Women’s Initiative, a division of the firm’s MMMPact community outreach, hosted the event.

Photo ID, left to right: Linda Rabbitt, MMM Managing Partner Louise Wells, Marketing Director Kate Pearch, Washington D.C. Office Co-Managing Partner Wendy White. Photo courtesy JSG Photography.

(Disclosure – MMM is one of my PR clients.)

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