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Judy Zakreski of the International Code Council: “It is key to understand your audience”

I am definitely going to keep preaching the global message because there are so many untapped opportunities internationally for the Code Council. For me, the next big disruption will be implementing “local for local” solutions using new business models with partners outside the U.S. As a part of our series about women who are shaking things […]

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I am definitely going to keep preaching the global message because there are so many untapped opportunities internationally for the Code Council. For me, the next big disruption will be implementing “local for local” solutions using new business models with partners outside the U.S.


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Judy Zakreski.

Judy is the Vice President of Global Services at the International Code Council. In this position, she represent the Code Council internationally and works to develop a global interest in the association, the International Codes (I-Codes), and other ICC products and services. Judy brings extensive experience in operations management, business development, and government relations as well as a strong knowledge of international trade to her role at the Code Council.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I actually did not start out in building safety nor did I originally think my career path would lead me down this road. For the first 25 years of my career, I was focused on helping Western companies — mainly in the healthcare technology space — enter the Chinese market. After obtaining my B.A. in International Studies and M.A. in International Commerce and Policy, I spent 20 years at a small but growing entrepreneurial company learning to think out of the box to solve complex problems and to not take no for an answer. After that, I spent a few years operating a boutique consulting firm doing similar work before deciding I was ready for a change. That is how I joined the International Code Council — the leading developer of the most widely used and highly regarded set of building safety codes and standards in the world to construct safe, sustainable, affordable, and resilient structures. It was a big change but I was drawn by the opportunity to create and implement a global strategy. Now I’m exporting services to governments and building safety industry professionals outside the U.S.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Surprisingly, when it comes to building safety and a uniform suite of building codes and standards, there is no apples-to-apples counterpart to the Code Council outside of the U.S. While many of the Code Council’s “family of solutions” do have some operational aspects outside the U.S., traditionally the organization has been U.S.-centric and there has not been a unified strategy to holistically introduce the nonprofit to entities overseas — meaning much of my work is “disruptive.”

Fortunately, the leadership and management teams are committed to global expansion, but the presentation of the Code Council in the U.S. is not accessible to people unfamiliar with the U.S. system. So one of my first projects was completely rewriting the narrative in a way that is easily understandable to people in the building industry abroad. Recognizing a real need, I have created a global access microsite that is also available in Spanish and Arabic, and which presents the Code Council Family of Solutions on an a la carte basis to help pinpoint building safety issues while also illustrating the advantage of bundling our services and codes.

Internally, I have a mission to encourage my colleagues to “think globally!” This can be as simple as saying “around the world” instead of “across the country” or as broad as reimaging our marketing materials so that anyone outside the U.S. feels valued.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During my first international business trip, I was asked to join an EVP for a meeting with our client. About four levels above me in the organizational chart, she was someone who I was both intimidated and inspired by — with a dry sense of humor and a reputation as a tough-as-nails negotiator. The clients sat on the opposite side of the table, and during the meeting, she had written a note for me to see that, while funny, was not very complimentary of the client. I failed miserably at keeping a straight face, and the client noticed and asked why I was smiling. Fortunately, we were able to wiggle our way out of the situation, but my takeaway was to watch my poker face, no matter how nervous I get.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

During my first job at a law firm in Washington D.C., working as an international trade legal assistant, I had the pleasure of working closely with Bonnie Byers, a trade economist. Fresh out of college and beginning to find my way as a professional woman, along with balancing work and life, I saw her as a true inspiration. Not only was she a working mother, but she was incredibly successful and well-respected by predominantly male peers. She consistently encouraged me to be flexible in how I defined my responsibilities in all aspects of life; asking me to consider what I wanted in my future and if I realistically saw myself “punching the clock” in my career. This advice provided a lot of value at the time and has continued to serve me well throughout my career.

Additionally, I cannot adequately express how my career and life have been impacted by the founders of Chindex, the company where I spent 20 years working. The leadership and mentorship of Roberta Lipson and Elyse Beth Silverberg are interwoven into who I am today. They created and operated a company that valued women, where the feeling that being a woman or a working mother, which both of them were, would not limit anyone’s opportunities with the company.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I think we always need to keep an open mind, and that goes for both sides of the disruption coin. I believe wholeheartedly that doing something because “that’s how we’ve always done it” is unacceptable. At the same time, there are some processes that work well and do not need to be changed. However, I do believe we need to revisit those processes and products from time to time to re-evaluate their effectiveness and efficiency, especially as technology evolves.

In the same vein, I don’t think it makes sense to create something just to be seen as “disruptive.” For instance, rather than trying to compete head-to-head with a business or technology that is highly successful in a particular market, it may be a better use of resources to join forces with market leaders or focus on areas with less competition. Even if your product or service is superior in some aspects, it could be a long, expensive road to gain market traction.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  • I fully believe in the importance of a company doing well by doing good — both in having a strong mission as well as operating ethically. Through my experience from exporting to China, I appreciate that our organization was able to build staying power in the market by standing strong in our values.
  • I’m a proponent of the concept, “don’t try, do.” One of my consulting clients once described me as tenacious, which I viewed as the highest compliment. As part of my personality, I am consistently looking for the “why” behind any rejection and that has allowed me to address any critique directly.
  • It is key to understand your audience. One of my coaches took me through an exercise involving different types of people and how their experiences defined the communication style that was most effective to use with each. It helped me in real-time with a challenging client, and several years later with some difficulty, I was having with a coworker. After an initial failure in communication, I was able to pivot to deliver future messages in a way that was easiest for them to receive it.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I am definitely going to keep preaching the global message because there are so many untapped opportunities internationally for the Code Council. For me, the next big disruption will be implementing “local for local” solutions using new business models with partners outside the U.S.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I think women have to overcome a higher bar to gain the trust and respect of their male counterparts, especially in industries that are traditionally male-dominated. There is still a tendency to dismiss what we are saying when it is different from the traditional process unless we have tangibly shown the value of our idea.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Over the past few years, like many others, I have become starkly aware of the realities of white privilege. The book that helped me open my mind and recognize the true depth of the historical inequalities was “Waking Up White” by Debby Irving.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, it would be around clean energy and electrification. Lately, my work with the Code Council has been focused on increasing energy efficiency and resiliency in buildings, understanding that buildings and construction are responsible for nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, and seeing that our existing buildings — especially homes — rely on fossil fuels. In fact, this is something we are acutely aware of at the Code Council, and we have recently released a framework, Leading the Way to Energy Efficiency: A Path Forward on Energy and Sustainability to Confront a Changing Climate, to provide communities with a multi-pronged approach to deliver the energy efficiency and other GHG reduction strategies we need. However, I also understand how difficult it is to convert all those buildings to electric and convert electrical grids to renewable energies. It needs to be done for the sake of our planet and our children’s future, but it is a monumental task and can only be achieved through collaboration between the government, the private and public sector, and individual citizens.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One motto that I’ve always tried to live by is to “think outside the box.” This has been a constant thread throughout my career and I cannot tell you how many times I have asked myself and others, “why not?” I suspect this is a common trait within the disruptor community because disruption is all about pushing forward to change the way things are done, and until someone can tell me definitively why I cannot do something, I’ll be undeterred in (tenaciously) pushing forward with implementing the change I think will help.

For example, one of my roles at Chindex was to lead a multi-disciplinary team of people across three continents to refine and promote a program that involved complicated trade financing and bundling millions of dollars worth of products sourced from around the world. Culturally, it was difficult for some of my colleagues to follow me in thinking outside the box to execute this innovative program as there is simply too much comfort in the following the formula and “checking the box.” However, this is not how innovation and improvement happen. Ultimately, the program we developed came to be referred to among government and banking circles as “the Chindex model” — and I was very proud of that.

How can our readers follow you online?

I have a Twitter account but I rarely post to it. The best way to follow me is on LinkedIn, under my name, Judy Zakreski — nothing fancy.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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