Alexia Nalewaik is the current President of the professional institution AACE International, past Chair of the International Cost Engineering Council, and past member of the Governing Council of RICS Americas. She has over 25 years of experience in project controls, specializing in audit, systemic risk, project analytics, and governance. She is a sole practitioner, having started her own firm in 2009. Alexia holds a bachelors degree in physics, a masters degree in structural engineering, and a PhD in project management. She has written two books, on project audit and project reporting. She is a Fellow of RICS, AACE International, ICEC, and the Guild of Project Controls.
What excites you about being a quantity surveyor?
In my career, I have worked on a diverse selection of projects, including petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, utilities, and major infrastructure. I don’t think I have ever stopped learning since day one, probably because I keep accepting new and interesting opportunities. It is invigorating, and always a challenge.
At the moment, I am teaching cost engineering, and helping a client validate claims and change orders. Next week or month or year, something different. I love being able to make a measurable difference. My work as a cost engineer means that difference is quantifiable, as monies saved or recovered, but also results in long-lasting process and organizational changes.
What is the biggest myth about your industry/sector?
The depth and breadth of what a QS can offer on projects is truly astounding, yet not well known. We’re more than just measurers, and we aren’t just a subset of project management. In my career, I have done quantitative risk modeling, auditing, process improvement, and estimating (to name just a few). Our two core skills, analytics and critical questioning, serve us in many ways.
Also, our skills translate far beyond the built environment. All my books and research are specifically written to be useful in other sectors and industries, such as manufacturing and IT, although my own experience is specifically construction.
What did you want to be, growing up?
I really wanted to be a Shakespeare scholar. I would have been good at it, too. My Dad still maintains I would have starved to death. He’s probably right. Being good at something doesn’t guarantee a livelihood.
What is your favourite book, and why?
I still think there needs to be a book about Ethel the Aardvark, pioneering female QS.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?
Shower, brush my teeth, let the dogs out, feed the dogs, get dressed. The time from bed to front door is approximately 20 minutes.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m very much a morning person, so I am up at 5:30 am and at the client site by 6:30 am. If I am travelling, that is more like ‘up at 3:30 am and arrive by 9 am’. The first few hours are spent responding to emails and phone calls, catching people early before they get distracted by something else, then on to number crunching and analytics. I put in up to 10 hours of billable work or teaching each day.
Because I serve on professional institution boards, I often have conference calls at noon, and official functions to attend in the evening. Those functions may be board meetings, speaking engagements, or other events.
If I can get in a swim anytime during the day or evening, I do. Some evenings include grading and office hours, as I am currently teaching a graduate class in engineering economics. There isn’t much time for anything else. I’m useless without 9 hours of sleep, and have learned not to skimp on that.
What tips do you have for managing your inbox?
I respond to emails immediately, and print all to pdf, storing them on my hard drive. I also print my responses to pdf. Then I delete the emails.
Being an auditor has taught me that documentation is imperative. I can dig up almost everything from my entire career of 25 years plus. I have proof of what others said/did/did not do, and when, and of everything I acted on. It’s a lifesaver.
What is the top challenge that you face as a leader (woman) in your industry?
It’s more like, what challenges haven’t I faced? Being talked over, my ideas co-opted by others, excluded from important meetings … it’s a million little and big cuts. It is hard to describe how much despicable behaviour I have seen in both the boardroom and the office.
Speak up. Walk into that meeting. Call people out on their conduct. Prove them wrong.
I have a lot of respect for women who succeed. It takes tenacity and resilience to get there and stay there, not just brains and competence. And, once there, they become a target for everyone else to tear down. There is never a chance to rest. It takes a lot of energy, a thick skin, and depths of confidence.
What is your motto/favourite quote in life?
“The older I get, the more I see how women are described as having gone mad, when what they’ve actually become is knowledgeable and powerful and fucking furious.” – Sophie Heawood
What is your mindset anthem – the song that is always guaranteed to pump you up?
I just tossed out several decades of music, and kept only 104 songs on iTunes in my transition to a new computer. Everything I am currently listening to is very eclectic and empowering.
Christina Aguilera’s “Fall in Line”
How do you relax?
I do my best thinking in the ocean or pool. I prefer long distances; the farthest I have swum to date is 20 miles, a solo of the Catalina Channel.
It has been said I abhor a vacuum in my personal schedule. It’s true. If I’m not out swimming or at a professional institution event, I can be found at home with the dogs, cooking and writing. I love to travel, it broadens my perspective. I’m no stranger to a good spa. Sometimes, if I plan well and am a bit lucky, all these favourite things coincide.