Sara Yerkes the International Code Council: “A final word of advice is to never take anything personal”

While the most disruptive years of my career are now behind me, I hope to continue to inspire colleagues to be their best. I am willing to share what I have learned with anyone interested in learning from my experience. At this point, that is the most impactful thing I can offer. As a part of […]

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While the most disruptive years of my career are now behind me, I hope to continue to inspire colleagues to be their best. I am willing to share what I have learned with anyone interested in learning from my experience. At this point, that is the most impactful thing I can offer.

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

Sara is the senior vice president of Government Relations at the International Code Council. She has been the leading voice advocating for the adoption of current, strong building codes since the first publication of the Code Council’s consolidated model building codes known as the International Codes (I-Codes). Sara plays an integral role in supervising the accomplishment of developed action plans; she promotes federal relations by establishing constructive alliances to support and benefit the Code Council’s mission and related goals; seeks opportunities to showcase ICC and to expand its circle of influence.

She also oversees the state and local activities that have successfully gained the adoption and use of the -Codes in all fifty states, as well as overseeing programs like the Plumbing, Mechanical and Fuel Gas Program (PMG) Resources for code adoptions, and Fire Service activities.

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 career path?

I first started my career in 1982 with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Working with a retired fire chief whom NFPA hired to start a research foundation, we built the foundation from the ground up — working on projects including the quick response fire sprinkler head tests. However, my first taste of government relations came in 1985 when I began managing the NFPA’s work with the congressional and executive branches of the federal government.

Then in 2001, I moved from focusing on fire safety to the broader building safety industry by joining 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. I then proceeded to launch its Government Relations Department which includes:

  • Managing relationships with national and state organizations, including all levels of government — Federal, state, and local;
  • Promoting the adoption of the International Codes (I-Codes), a family of fifteen coordinated, modern building safety codes developed by the Code Council that help ensure the engineering of safe, sustainable, affordable, and resilient structures; and
  • Supporting services for the adoption of the plumbing, mechanical, fuel gas, and swimming pool codes.

Additionally, I managed Building Safety Month, an annual educational campaign every May to raise awareness about the importance of building codes and the role of building safety professionals, for a few years, and I institutionalized the Technical High School and Military Families programs.

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

I would classify my work more as critical than disruptive. As the SVP of Government Relations at the Code Council, I have been a leading voice in advocating for the adoption of current, strong building codes since the first publication of the Code Council’s consolidated model building codes known as the I-Codes. As the foundation of creating safe, sustainable and resilient communities, modern and innovative codes are crucial but their adoption and implementation by local jurisdictions are sometimes overlooked. Therefore, my team and I have had to get creative in our advocacy.

On a more personal front, I have been blessed with the opportunity to see and experience many changes in the workplace that have advanced women to higher positions. I am also fortunate to have worked for and continue to work with men who have supported and empowered me. This support has helped me succeed both personally and professionally.

After all, the unfortunate fact is that to succeed in any field, women must exceed expectations. So, to truly shake up the landscape and advance the adoption and implementation of modern building codes and standards, I have never hesitated to take on work and initiate projects, whether they fit my job description or not. To that point, I believe that the job description should be more of guidelines of the base requirements for a position rather than the end-all. I do what I need to do to support my organization, its members, and the leadership that entrusts me with those responsibilities. The expectations I place on myself supersede what others expect of me, and I always hold myself accountable for my actions.

I never shy away from tough situations. I have been in public hearings where the discussions were tense and very competitive, but I embrace these situations and view them as opportunities.

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?

Over the years, I have faced numerous situations that have been stressful, difficult, fun, and everything in between. One anecdote that still stands out is when I first started with the Code Council and had been working on a piece of legislation to assist Central American countries receiving financial aid from the U.S. to rebuild infrastructure with U.S. codes and standards. I was walking the halls of Congress with two colleagues, advocating for support of the legislation as I needed certain members of the jurisdiction committee to support the bill — one of which was Senator Lieberman.

Back in the “old days,” the public had access to underground transportation including the little tram that runs between the Capitol and office buildings. I was so lucky when I spotted Senator Lieberman getting into one of the trams, and not wanting to miss the opportunity, I ran after him, got into the tram right behind him, and left my colleagues stunned on the platform. While I had succeeded in getting Senator Lieberman to co-sponsor our bill if I had done that today I would probably be arrested for chasing after a member of Congress.

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?

I am fortunate to have worked with outstanding individuals who generously shared their knowledge and empowered me to succeed. For example, early in my career, I was given the opportunity to be our representative to the Executive Branch on Capitol Hill. I remember going to meetings where I was the only woman (and very young) and returning to the office lamenting that the men were not “listening” to me. My boss’s words were: “Never forget who you represent, and they will learn to listen to you. Do what you need. I have your back.”

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 can definitely see both sides of the coin — where disruption of an industry is both “good” and “bad.” After all, as a representative of a model code developer that follows a consensus format, it can be difficult to meet the needs and expectations of a diverse community of stakeholders who share the goal of public safety but often have conflicting interests on how to fulfill that goal. For example, the Code Council recently disrupted an industry by making a bold move to adjust the process by which our International Energy Conservation Code is developed. The members and leadership of the Code Council heard the concerns raised by many in our community and shifted to a standards development process. While this decision generated strong reactions, ultimately the goal is to meet the specific needs of the industry. The development of this particular model code requires a continuous process in order to account for emerging technologies and methodologies, as well as to effectively meet the goals of this administration which is committed to addressing climate impact and resiliency.

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 have learned — and frequently remind my colleagues — to be kind, factual, and respectful of everyone, including our opponents, in order to gain respect and credibility. The way we carry ourselves reflects not only on us personally but also on the organization we represent. People may forget our names, but they will remember who we represent. I have experienced situations in public meetings where people (who should have known better) made derogatory comments that accomplish nothing for them and actually helped the opposition’s case.

Another piece of advice I give my colleagues is to be polite to the people at the front office. In Congressional offices, you never know who is sitting at the front desk. That aide could be the next Chief of Staff, or in some cases, even a future member of Congress. When we organize Hill visits, everyone always wants to meet with their Senators or representatives, but I advise folks not to be disappointed if they only meet with young staffers as they will likely be the ones working closely on our issue. Government relations are about relationships. If people like you, they will trust you more. Taking a few minutes to say “hello” and “thank you” matters a lot.

A final word of advice is to never take anything personal. The worst situations occur when people take matters personally and make comments that damage feelings. Organizations suffer as a result, and it can take years to mend those relationships.

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

While the most disruptive years of my career are now behind me, I hope to continue to inspire colleagues to be their best. I am willing to share what I have learned with anyone interested in learning from my experience. At this point, that is the most impactful thing I can offer.

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

Unfortunately, I still think women are not compensated fairly for equal work — whether due to us avoiding asking for higher compensation, even if well-deserved, or from an organizational bias. Therefore, women need to be their best advocates and demand credit for their accomplishments.

I would like to see more women support each other through mentoring. It is in humanity’s best interest to support the advancement of any well-qualified individual who works hard and strives for excellence.

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

The biggest impact on my thinking did not come from a book or a podcast, but rather my mother, a strong woman who instilled in me the values of confidence and strong ethics. My mother was ahead of her time in her knowing that women are not limited from the standpoints of intelligence and skills. She preached self-dependence, kindness, and integrity; and she believed women should aspire to be whatever they want.

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. 🙂

A movement based on humanity — by this I mean for all people to be kind, tolerant to all living beings, and respectful of our environment. This simple movement would eliminate a great deal of misery and discrimination, as well as pollution of our environment, corruption of politicians, imbalance of wealth, and more.

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

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” — Benjamin Franklin

I have found this quote to be the truth. The best way to learn anything is by practicing — learn from living and learn from experience.

How can our readers follow you online?

I’m on LinkedIn — Sara Yerkes.

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

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