As a sign of her successful leadership in the legal field, in 2017 Angelia Wesch was named the first female managing partner in the 125-year history of the Seattle-based law firm of Oles Morrison Rinker & Baker LLP.
Wesch focuses on helping the firm’s clients solve big, complex legal problems ― particularly in the areas of real estate, construction and insurance coverage. Her clients are responsible for some of the largest civil infrastructure and transportation projects in the nation.
She also is committed to advancing the role of women in the legal, real estate and construction industries, serving previously as Seattle Chapter president of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), a professional commercial real estate organization with some 12,000 members.
Wesch has been a CREW member since 1995 and is a co-founder of the CREW Seattle Leadership Development Program, through which she has provided professional-development training to some 90 women since the program’s launch in 2013. Additionally, Wesch is an original member of Women Leaders in Construction, a networking group for women in the construction industry that serves more than 500 women.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated? Patience, ability to listen and flexibility are key traits that all good leaders must possess to effectuate any meaningful change in their organizations. Our current times provide far too many examples of poor leadership styles and traits, but not enough inspirational examples of other women doing what comes naturally to them ― leading instinctively, with both patience and persistence.
While persistence is a valuable leadership trait, it can veer off to become inflexibility when people stop listening to each other’s ideas and stop welcoming that exchange. Leaders who are fearful of the uncomfortable space that change can expose are often ineffective leaders, so I would describe being “driven” as an overrated leadership trait. In my experience, sometimes the most driven leaders are also the least inspirational. They often lack balance, empathy and are not self-aware in their insistent pursuit to conform an organization to their Ideal.
In my experience, the most effective leaders are not always the smartest people in the room in terms of measurable IQ. Some ineffective leaders, despite their infinite intelligence, cannot seem to motivate others to bring their best selves to work. The flip side of this, of course, would be those leaders who with humility manage to instill loyalty and great passion in their teams, even though the leaders themselves may not be experts at everything. A strong leader is able to graciously “own” their lack of knowledge about a particular subject or issue and are comfortably asking questions and seeking out recommendations from those people who make the organization successful.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader? Time. Plain and simple. Women often take on too much, all at once, with a fierce perfectionist streak that ensures the product will be perfect, but the human delivering such a product ends up drained and unsure about whether the end really does justify the means. A lesser barrier is the lack of true mentors and internal champions in positions of power within organizations to provide the support for other women to seek out leadership roles.
If we are all too exhausted and drained to help others, then the status quo never changes. Over the course of three decades in my profession, I have observed that women really do want to achieve the same level of success and leadership as men do. Women just sometimes face higher hurdles to get there. Perfectionism is not a trait to be celebrated. It is a mask for the negative way societal expectations limit a woman’s ability to take on important leadership roles.
It takes a societal shift to provide women with flexibility to perform good work on their own terms. Hopefully, work will not look like it did 20 years ago ― when women had to negotiate for simple flexibility to perform good work while doing important societal work of raising families, taking care of aging parents and spending meaningful time giving back to their communities. And that is a good thing.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? Letting go of the toxicity of perfectionism is a good start. We can be proficient, qualified, knowledgeable and effective. We do not have to be perfect. And we need to be confident in communicating our desire to serve in leadership roles in our own organizations. Do not wait to be asked!
Seek out a mentor and a champion ― not always the same person ― within your organization and make clear that you are eager to take on a leadership role. Then, once you are given the chance, treat that role with the respect it deserves. Do not think of it as “just one more thing to cross off the to do list.” Think of it as an investment in yourself, your future and in your organization.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you? I have had many supportive and inspirational leaders in my career. They have provided me with advice, criticism and permission to try new things and make choices that, to some, might seem unorthodox. From my first mentor, one of the best appellate attorneys I have ever seen, I learned the importance of clear communication and dedication to improving my ability to lead others. She demonstrated sacrifice and balanced it with wisdom to know what you can influence, and what is essentially out of your hands.
A few years into my career, I decided to relocate my practice across the country, leave a job I loved and a supportive group of friends and professional colleagues to move to Seattle. In making this move, I was given the chance to reinvent my career. I was lucky to find an attorney who believed in my abilities and was willing to sponsor my successful advancement by encouraging me to seek out leadership opportunities in a professional organization that promotes the success of women in the commercial real estate industry. My involvement with that organization, CREW, provided me with a platform to seek out leadership opportunities on a national level by serving on CREW’s board of directors back in 2002.
By learning from other women whose leadership styles and professional successes I admired, I recognized the importance of never abandoning your own goals, dreams and desires to conform to the ideas of other leaders whose own vision may not align with your own. The most powerful lesson I gleaned from these inspirational mentors, sponsors and leaders was to embrace change.
I have worked at five different law firms in 31 years ― and one of those was my own law firm that I founded with two other partners ― but at every decision point in my professional career, I was able to draw on the advice, wisdom and support of other women leaders whose career choices resonated with my own. The lessons I learned from them are priceless.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders? Be fearless! Do not take advice from anyone whom you do not want to be like. Confidently present your ideas. Do your homework. Being gracious and humble are powerful leadership traits. Use them. Give yourself permission to think big. Surround yourself with people who can be brutally honest with you when you need them to be, but whose advice is worth taking.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts? Networking is everything. There are many different types of networking. Some types of networking require us to work hard to become proficient at it. Other types of networking happen naturally as we meet different people from different parts of our lives.
Over many years, I have developed strong personal friendships from the professional bonds I formed early in my career. No matter how many professional career changes I design for myself, I always make sure to stay in contact with those people who have been my best professional sounding board when I was looking for clarity and a reason to make a sound professional decision.
I am not a huge social media person. I have no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram presence. I do have a LinkedIn page, and I use that platform to stay in quick touch with others in my professional network. I am very selective in the persons with whom I connect on LinkedIn, but I am always open to making a new connection with someone where we might have the chance to work together or support each other on issues that resonate with me.
What would you do differently in your career? Good question. I love what I do and feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work with other inspirational young women and men who are just beginning their careers. If I were to change any one thing, it would be to go all the way back to the very beginning when I was deciding what I wanted to do professionally. I had an interest in being an architect and loved design. I also thought about being a writer.
As a construction and insurance-coverage attorney, I have been able to utilize both of those interests in working with clients to help solve problems on some of the most challenging and interesting construction projects being built. I also founded a record label, a production company and a media company in the mid-2000’s to work with local musicians in the Northwest to help them negotiate contracts and promote their music. I suppose if I was going to have done anything differently, it would have been to explore even more entrepreneurial opportunities early in my career.
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon? If the weather and waves are favorable, you will find me on my stand-up paddle board off of Alki [Beach] or at Green Lake. At least once a month, I try to get over to my organic farm to see what is in season and good to eat. Nothing humbles you like trying to coax a good harvest out of stubborn soil.
What would be the title of your autobiography? “Road Therapy.” Coming in a few years, hopefully, to virtual bookshelves everywhere. I do some of my best thinking driving a challenging stretch of remote road, surrounded by one of the most spectacular views on earth. It’s a big world out there. The challenge is not to get so engrossed in the daily grind of living that we actually forget how to live.