Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Kathleen Abbott Of Arcadis Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Know your people: surround yourself with a group of safe, trusted people who can help you collaborate on ideas.
As a part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathleen Abbott.
Kathleen Abbott is a professional geologist, leading the business development and sales function for Arcadis Places’ Global Business Area. Building on her passion and expertise in supporting the sustainability aspirations of multinational clients as President of Arcadis’ Environment business in North America, her global role extends to new geographies, sectors and asset types. Kathleen continues to champion the decarbonization agenda across the built asset lifecycle including those places in which we live, work, learn, play and move. She holds a B.A. in Geology from Macalester College and an M.A. in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Washington University (St. Louis). She is based in San Rafael, California, where she is the proud mom of two active boys. Kathleen loves travel, the natural world and cultural exchange, and is an active supporter of women and minorities in science and leadership.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Absolutely! I was raised in a relatively rural community in Maine that was also a university town, which also created opportunity to connect with higher education, music and the arts. The outdoor world was our family’s playground — camping, canoeing, hiking — we were doing all those things. I can remember as a teenager having conversations with my parents while camping out in the middle of nowhere, freezing cold, asking, “Why are we doing this?”
My mom’s sincere reply was, “it’s character building.” I was lucky to grow up in a safe place that also really tested your boundaries, and my parents created a healthy tension in the experiences they shared with our family. They allowed me to get comfortable being uncomfortable and know that “this” wasn’t going to kill me.
Both of my parents worked — each in the education space. My mom’s background in college and post-grad was in math and physics. A mom in science who surrounded herself with other female professionals reinforced to me that female leadership was never outside of the norm and my dad was a wonderful role model and ally — building cultural, racial and gender diverse teams wherever he has worked — way ahead of his time. That’s what I grew up around, and that was my ‘normal’. So, when the time came for me to choose a course of study, science and engineering was the route I chose! Now, working in a more male dominated industry doesn’t feel strange or uncomfortable for me. This is the blueprint of how my upbringing played a big part in shaping who I am today.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Arcadis is the world’s leading company delivering sustainable design, engineering, digital and consultancy solutions for natural and built assets. We are more than 36,000 architects, data analysts, designers, engineers, project planners, water management and sustainability experts, all driven by our passion for improving quality of life. Arcadis is comprised of three global business areas: Places (commercial and residential real estate, urbanism and industrial facilities), Mobility (highways, railways, airports and new mobility) and Resilience (water, energy and environment). A fourth global business area known as Intelligence is shaping up to launch later this year and will center on providing innovative and digital solutions.
I am the Global Director of Business Development and Clients for Places. Our team is multinational and highly diversified with a keen focus on creating smart, sustainable, and resilient places for owners, users, communities and visitors. By assembling innovative solutions that consider the whole life of an asset, we create better places to live, work, play, learn and help us move. We aspire to improve quality of life for all. Working with creative teams comprised of engineers, planners, architects, scientists, data wizards and a multitude of other equally skilled individuals is amazing — the combination of these experts results in a work world for me that is different every day. It is almost impossible to anticipate what each day will bring in this highly energetic and unpredictable environment.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Growing up in a place that was very close to the natural world and going to school for geology always made me think about how things impact the world within which we live. That matter was in front of me all the time. I have always been very connected to the natural environment. Now, living in California, I’m in a coastal community adjacent to water where I see the impacts of climate change, up close, in real time.
My husband works for the National Park Service, so we are highly aware of how important it is to preserve and protect natural spaces. And then, having kids just really drove that home. What are we doing to protect the world that they will inherit? With that question always running in the background, it creates a sense of urgency — probably more than anything else.
I could talk all day long on the environmental side of ESG as that is where I have spent the majority of my career but more and more I find myself focused on the social part of ESG — it is truly an intersectional topic. You can’t focus and think only about the environment if you don’t think about equality and how governance and policy impacts everyone especially those that have been historically excluded. To make ESG real we need to have more diverse voices in the room and at the table — while we plan and implement. So, equity comes in quickly, and then, very near and dear to my heart, is that piece of gender equity. How do we create or change our culture? Whether that’s closing the gender gap in the sciences, in leadership or creating a culture where people bring their whole selves to work. What are we doing to get the best of all our people, not just a portion of them. That inspires me every day.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I’ve been with Arcadis almost my entire career. So, the way I would pivot this question is: what about Arcadis has made me stay and what’s been the “aha moment” that helps keep me here?
Arcadis really aligns with my own personal values, and they always have. We are a team of 36,000 people around the world in 70 countries who are passionate about improving quality of life. Wherever around the world I travel, I get to meet other Arcadians. That connection and that passion about improving quality of life, whether you’re in the Mobility space and thinking about roadway designs or new mobility, you’re in the Places business and thinking about corporate real estate or urbanism, or you’re in Resilience and thinking about water and energy, the common thread is: I want to do something that has an impact and improves quality of life for everybody. We’re always asking, “what is your legacy and what are you doing to have a long term, positive impact on the world?” That’s been the continual “aha moment” for me.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I’ve spent more than 20 years of my career in the environmental space. Over the years, this allowed me to really connect to what we are doing to improve quality of life from an environmental perspective. Over the last two years I migrated into our Places business. Some 40 percent of the global carbon footprint comes from the built environment. Though I’ve been highly focused on the natural environment, I realize we could make an even greater impact if we look at what we are doing within the built environment. That aspect of making a difference is what attracted me to assume a global role in our Places business.
If you think about a building or an asset itself as the carbon footprint, 30 percent of that comes from when the asset is built — what are the materials it’s built from — however, 70 percent of that carbon footprint results from how it’s operated over the asset’s life cycle. So, it’s not only the impact we can have on new buildings, but it’s also the impact we can have on the entire built environment. 80% of buildings which will be occupied in 2050 already exist, meaning decarbonizing existing buildings is a major priority! If we change how we operate and how we use assets — where we live, where we work, where we sleep, where we move — it will have a profound impact on accelerating us to a net-zero future.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I feel like the most interesting thing for me is that every day I get to meet more of our amazing 36,000-person team. I have the opportunity to meet people who are doing something really interesting, really cool, really impactful, and it just reinforces the fact that anytime somebody asks us, “can you do this? Does Arcadis do this?” I know the answer is yes. That excites me every day.
Everyone here has an incredible story, where they’ve worked on different kinds of projects, in different industries. We have a very rich tapestry of experience that we get to bring together. That’s probably what I care about the most and find really interesting.
It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Do you have a story about a humorous mistake that you made when you were first starting and the lesson you learned from that?
Often there is a perception as a leader or someone who’s successful in the business that you do everything well and nothing bad ever happens to you. The stark reality is that this is a people business and, as individuals, each of us is not always everyone’s cup of tea. Consulting is a relationship business and it’s about being a matchmaker. A lot of what I do is centered on matchmaking — understanding people, identifying individuals and building teams that will be successful both internally and externally. It’s not always about who’s the smartest, who has the best technical background, who has the most experience. It’s really about how do people work together well.
Using examples where we have been fired from a job and really asking ourselves, “okay, that means this isn’t working, so what can we learn from that?” I can say this for myself and many of my colleagues: some of my most successful client engagements are with people who initially fired us, and I worked to pivot and figure out how we can turn this into something different. What can we learn from that? How can we create something stronger? Because, at the end of the day, we’re all people.
So, I think that is a big one. The other lesson I learned was around leveraging perceptions. I had a boss — my first real mentor — who took me under her wing and really started me in my career progression. She always saw me as an engineer, and even though I started my education in engineering, I transitioned to geology and have a BA and MA in that science. I learned that, if someone sees you as something, that’s okay, and you can ask yourself “what can I do with that?” I learned that you could take something about yourself you never saw before and build it into your personal brand to grow even more. Having the ability to connect and translate between engineers, sciences, designers, clients and stakeholders has been a superpower!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’ve had many mentors, advocates and sponsors throughout my career. Often, I say I’ve been lucky to have those people in my life and throughout my entire career. I think the other way to look at it though is it’s not just luck. It’s meeting the right person — being in the right place at the right time — but it’s also hard work. It’s about showing up for that person and showing your value and bringing your A game, every single time. It’s a two-way street, and it’s about seizing opportunities that may not be ideal, adding value, being curious and wanting to be in the room.
I’ve also had a true mix of female and male sponsors throughout my career. In a male dominated industry, most have been men, and it’s been incredible to find those people that see you for who you are and the value that you bring, irrelevant of gender or anything else. I have had mentors who showed me the ropes in the field as an early career geologist (Bill Copeland), who brought me early to client meetings so I could understand how our field work translated to results (Diane Mims), leaders who trusted me to create solutions and lead before I knew I was ready (Michael Fleischner, John Vogeley), sponsors who have connected me to the right training and opportunities and always are available as sounding boards (Alex Rothchild, Mary Ann Hopkins and Peter Oosterveer) and inspiring support from leaders who say “that sounds like a good idea — go do it” (Joachim Ebert).
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The number one thing is we must work together. No one company, no one city, no one individual is going to solve these huge societal level challenges, such as equity or climate change. We must work together.
The other thing I’d say is don’t wait for perfect. Start small and start now. If we wait to come up with the silver bullet it will be too late. Can you ride your bike, instead of driving the car to the grocery shop? Can you change your travel and say, “I’m going to take two vacations this year, but only one of them will be on an airplane.” There are lots and lots of little things you can do that add up to big changes. That’s the same for any community, any company, any politician, any group. Don’t wait for where it’s all perfect. Start now and don’t be afraid to think big!
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
One, there’s an increasing demand for net zero. So, whether that’s where you go to work, where you shop, where you live, there’s a green premium on that. And that’s coming from us as a society — people having that demand — as well as from shareholders and investors who want to be in compliance. I think from a business perspective, it’s understanding that green premium and getting involved — what do you bring to the table to improve the circularity of something — that is adding value right now.
For those of us at Arcadis and my role specifically, one thing we do is look at that from a corporate real estate perspective. If there’s a company with an intelligent interface where they can show their sustainability efforts and be transparent about their carbon footprint, they’re going to get a higher return on investment.
We also are helping companies create their office spaces or their corporate headquarters, and a lot of times it’s not only about what the building looks like, it’s about the employee experience. We’re all facing labor shortages and evaluating the labor and talent pool. How do we retain our people, how do we keep them happy? How do we make sure they’re productive?
People are demanding a better employee and user experience. For us internally, we think about employee experience for our clients, but we also think about it for ourselves. What do our Arcadians want? They want to know what we’re doing and know the business decisions we’re making are related to a more sustainable future. They want to know that business leaders are making the right decisions to contribute to this objective.
Connecting that back to equity and inclusion, if you are worried — you don’t have psychological safety at work — and you don’t feel like you can bring your whole self to work, you’re wasting so much of your mental energy thinking about that versus doing the work and being a productive part of the team. If we can have more comfortable, productive employees with lower turnover, there’s a huge benefit and it helps a business be more profitable.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
- Pick your battles: you can’t fight all the fights. Which ones should you really invest in to help or make an impact?
- Know your people: surround yourself with a group of safe, trusted people who can help you collaborate on ideas.
- Remain super curious and don’t be afraid of failure: this is a growth mindset and helps bring everyone around you up when you’re not afraid to ask questions.
- Six levels down: often in bigger companies the ones who can answer a question or have the solution are several layers down within the company — the people doing the day-to-day grind. As leaders, we need to get them more visibility and stay connected.
- Be the best you: lean into that authenticity. Focus on what you are good at and accept what you’re not the best at to build a team around you who can help.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would ask them why not? There’s only so many hours in every day, and you’re going to spend some of it working… Why wouldn’t you want to work on the most pressing, interesting, complicated, challenging issues of society? Whether it’s around the environment and creating sustainable buildings, or around new ways of moving (electric vehicles, intelligent rails, etc.), all those things are impacting you every single day.
For so many people in general, but especially younger people coming into the business world, social and environmental impact is so important to them. So why not match that with what you do for a living instead of having that be divergent?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Yes, this one is easy — “We Need More Cowbell!” Hopefully you have seen the famous SNL skit with Will Ferrell and what my interpretation and use of this quote is about — bring your whole self and always bring more energy!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would enjoy meeting Sarah Spain (pioneering sports journalist) and Reshma Saujani (founder of Moms First and Girls Who Code). At this moment in time, Reshma is an incredible voice for gender equity in the workplace — daily she reminds us to change the system not the person, and I wholeheartedly agree. I love her perspective and her raw authenticity — she is an inspiring leader. I heard Sarah Spain on a podcast with Abby Wambach — Sarah’s pragmatic approach to her career and experiences is so relevant to anyone working in a male dominated industry and the way she is impacting her world from the inside, while not always pretty, is a solid roadmap.
How can our readers follow you online?
Kathleen’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathleen-abbott-25422611
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Kathleen Abbott Of Arcadis Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.