Transformational: Sheri Tickner

Jan 01, 2023

Senior vice president of AFG Group, Inc., a woman-owned firm with 30 years of experience providing program, project, construction, and relocation management services.

By Liisa Andreassen

When AFG Group, Inc. (Herndon, VA) moved to strengthen its leadership team, they made a strategic hire in the spring of 2022 – Sheri Tickner. She’s currently senior vice president and director of national sales and growth. Her 30 years of experience in the management consulting, architectural, and engineering fields combined with operational excellence to the built environment made her the ideal person for the job.

“My ‘superpower’ is understanding where we are now as a company and developing a vision for where we’re going,” Tickner says. “However, to get a vision to become a reality, you need a team that sees and wants to be a part of making that vision come to life. There’s nothing more fulfilling than sparking a flame of passion in your team, motivating them to find their superpowers, and watching as they achieve their part of the vision.”

A conversation with Sheri Tickner.

TZL: You’ve worked for some large AEC companies over the years. Why did you decide to work with a smaller company like AFG?

Sheri Tickner: It’s been an amazing 30-year professional journey. I’ve been fortunate to work with the best of the best as well as to be placed in leadership roles at high performing companies. I was looking for a change and new challenge outside of large Fortune 500 companies. I wanted to be in a role where I would have a direct impact working with an established smaller business and could lead a company to the next level of growth.

I have known the owner and president of AFG for years and the timing was right to make the move. AFG is a “large” woman-owned small business that has been in business for 32 years. It’s a well-established company with committed clients, experienced staff, and great past performance for me to build upon and push to new and exciting heights.

TZL: Many companies are having problems finding and hiring top talent. Is your firm also experiencing this issue?

ST: We’re witnessing a “war on talent” and those with the right resources win. There’s plenty of work out there to be won, but if you do not have the right team to deliver from day one, your business’ reputation could be tarnished. Like most companies, AFG has recruiters, and we’re partnering with staffing agencies, securing internships with college students, and recruiting those retiring from the military looking to start a second career. Attacking the challenge from multiple angles makes it rare to have any position left unfilled for an extended period of time.

TZL: Have you had a particular mentor who has guided you – in school, in your career, or in general? Who were they and how did they help?

ST: My professional journey has never been accomplished alone. When I was exploring architecture as a degree, I recall a dean telling me it was not a profession for women, and he did everything he could to discourage me. I was very fortunate that his words went in one ear and out the other, and that degree really set me on my way to exploring the built environment.

I was also very fortunate to have Dan Willis, AIA, the award-winning architect and author, as my advisor. With his guidance, I won two of the four thesis awards and the prize money allowed me to move to San Francisco where my career was born. Jay Turnbull, chairman and former CEO of the famed Page & Turnbull architecture firm, taught me all about architecture and historic preservation. I worked for the ever-inspiring Mary Hanni-Ilyin on the renovation of San Francisco’s City Hall. She took me under her wing, and you name it, I learned it from her – especially how to have an “iron fist with a velvet glove.” And my parents were and still are huge influences. My father loved work, never complained, and built an amazing business where he was responsible for the growth, strategy, and sales. He was all about relationships, quality product, and innovation.

TZL: Who are you admiring right now in the AEC industry? Where do you see thought leadership and excellence?

ST: While many of our partner firms are doing extremely well, I’d like to highlight the work of MCFA, a Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business. The CEO, BJ Kraemer, has an energetic team who are sharp and motivated. He’s created an environment where it’s a great place to work, especially for the young talent. MCFA hosts a podcast, Inspiring People & Places, which is worth a listen.

TZL: In your current role, what are your top short-term and long-term goals?

ST: Our short-term focus is to strengthen our core competencies, always deliver excellence, and make sure we’re aligned with the right partners and clients. Taking a hard look at what we do well and where we can improve is critical to ensuring we are always the first choice for our key and core clients.

A primary focus is maintaining and hiring the right people – people who are innovators, trained, and knowledgeable in industry best practices to deliver quality solutions across a diverse range of programs and clients. Making sure the team is happy, motivated, challenged, and proud to be at AFG where they see career growth opportunities are all important.

A long-term strategy for growth we’re working on is asking, “Are we ‘hitching our wagon’ to the right partners where it’s less transactional and more relationship-driven?” We need to ensure that we, as partners, complement one another with the right people to deliver diverse solutions for our clients.

Success with AFG’s short-term focus will leverage us into achieving our long-term plan in growing and expanding our core competencies into new service offerings such as assessment management, turnover operational readiness, new markets such as energy and horizontal infrastructure, and new clients in the transportation and civil works market sectors.

TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?

ST: I’m a mother of four and a military spouse married to an Army General. Over the past 20 years, we’ve moved more than 10 times and during that time my husband has been deployed to the Middle East twice. For the last two and a half years, my kids and I have lived apart from him so he can continue with his military career while I’ve settled in one location so the kids can finish school without having to move again.

Most people ask, “How do you do it?” And my answer is always that I’ve been extremely fortunate to work for global companies where I can do my job anywhere in the world, and at the same time be a mom and spouse. Time with the family is often quality over quantity. Therefore, while working, I diligently manage my time to ensure every activity and engagement is productive and prioritized accordingly.

TZL: Currently, the AEC industry is experiencing rapid disruption and change. The continuing rise of digital solutions and the climate emergency are re-shaping how we design, build, and operate our buildings and infrastructure. What AEC trends do you see emerging in say the next five years?

ST: Industry has not even touched the surface where technology and digital solutions will take us in the built environment. It’s exciting times in the “Smart Age” of IoT, digital twin, AI, cyber, drones, smart cities, and whatever new shiny digital object or buzzword transpires next.

A challenge which poses an opportunity to all this digital excitement is training the new workforce to be able to operate, maintain, and secure these “smart” building solutions for efficiency, sustainability, and resiliency. We can design, engineer, and install this digital infrastructure, but if we do not have the labor force to care for it, we may not realize its full operational potential or ability to deal with security risks.

From the digital age comes the desire for data. Everyone wants data, but clients are often unsure of how to best use, maintain, and analyze it to really move the needle on decision making, performance optimization, and realize returns on investment decisions. AFG is exploring how we manage the data and work with building owners on the turnover of buildings, technology, and cyber for operational readiness.

TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?

ST: AFG has a wonderfully diverse team, and it’s refreshing. I do think the construction management business is slightly behind the curve with senior technical women leadership. However, I’m seeing an influx of younger women in the CM industry and soon enough they will be the future leaders. Each generation seems to get better and more inclusive.

Organizations like the National Association of Women in Construction are making a difference, and it’s always encouraging when I see other women being recognized as fellows in industry organizations. It’s also helpful when we visit schools, from elementary to high school, to share what we do in our careers to spark a younger generation’s interest.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

ST: Transformational – and it’s a work in progress. My “superpower” is understanding where we are now as a company and developing a vision for where we’re going. However, to get a vision to become a reality, you need a team that sees and wants to be a part of making that vision come to life. There’s nothing more fulfilling than sparking a flame of passion in your team, motivating them to find their superpowers, and watching as they achieve their part of the vision.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

ST: We consistently review our investments in our tenured staff. During COVID, we increased our training investment to ensure everyone remained working at 100 percent. We’ll continue to invest in the next generation and have recently decided to increase our efforts in mentoring “the next generation” by enhancing our existing “Management Mentor Track” and establishing a new “Technical Mentor Track” this year.

TZL: How is your firm working to recession-proof itself?

ST: Recession proofing is all about backlog. We currently have sufficient contract backlog to carry us through any immediate economic downturn. Recent multi-year federal contract awards will allow AFG to not only remain stable, but to grow in the coming year. These contracts are with new clients in a wider geographical area, which again, allow us to mitigate any downturn in one area or client market.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

ST: Relational growth.

TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?

ST: Everyone has different motivational reasons for sticking around, but I think there’s an overlying common denominator: People want to feel appreciated, respected, and know there’s room to advance. They want to know they have a voice and that their work is making a difference. We work to achieve that and, as a result, we’ve maintained a below industry average turnover rate for nearly eight years running.  

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