Daring Women: Hewitt’s Julia Nagele Leads by Emphasizing Strength and Humility

Hewitt's principal and director of design checks her ego at the door and and views criticism as an opportunity to grow
  • Hewitt's principal and director of design checks her ego at the door and and views criticism as an opportunity to grow

Julia Nagele watched quietly as throngs of investors and party-goers enjoyed the celebration.

It was the topping-off party for The Emerald, a 40-story, 265-unit luxury-residential development near Seattle’s Pike Place Market slated to open next spring.

You’d never know that Nagele had led the project’s design team in her role as principal and director of design at architectural firm Hewitt.

Before joining Hewitt in 2011, Nagele ran her own interior design firm. Since then, her experience includes a broad range of real estate projects, including single-family residential, high-rise multifamily, mixed-used and university buildings, performance spaces and sports arenas.

What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?

In my experience, leading by example and always being curious are the most important characteristics. I like to be in the center of the studio, working amongst my colleagues, rather than in a corner office. I’ve never been one to cling to a well-worn path, as there’s rarely anything new there, but instead I lead by example, bringing up the group around me to be curious and know their responsibilities. Our office has a commitment and responsibility in the work we do for Seattle. We are responsible to meet our clients’ needs and think about the lifespan our work has. Many people will experience the buildings in different ways.

I also teach at the University of Washington. I’ve found my leadership style in the classroom in some ways similar and some ways different as in the office. It’s still about being the authentic you, listening to the concerns of those you lead with an open mind. I like to promote the students’ explorations, understanding it’s their work. I really enjoy encouraging diverse design approaches and seeing where they will go. 

Leadership can sometimes be misunderstood as being more about authority and status. For me, the first word that comes to mind when thinking of a good leader is responsibility. Your day- to-day decisions are less about yourself and more about the people who make up the organization.

As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?

It’s a complicated question, but yes, barriers exist. Women often consider any number of different paths that can affect their professional careers. It doesn’t take much; even a small barrier can impact the path we have chosen. However, I always share with my staff and students that you are entitled to create your own path and doing so can prove to be much more interesting and rewarding -- even if it means clearing more barriers.

I did not follow the prescribed path. For example, when I started my career, I spent only a short time in Seattle before moving back to the East Coast to support my wife and her career -- and back again a short while after. I have learned “leaning in” does not warrant a trophy. The important part of “leaning in” is what happens after and how you react to it. 

How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?

I didn’t plan to become principal. For me, all the conditions to step into a leadership role fell into place. These conditions were personal life experiences and a change in perspective. I became curious about what the possibilities were in my day-to-day work. In doing so, it opened a new realm of opportunities and responsibilities. Before I knew it, I was promoted.

How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? Hire more women and put more women in leadership positions.

What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you?

Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege to be surrounded by strong, intelligent women. These female forces include my Grandmother, Dr. Rita Scott Bar, and my wife, Ann. With their own uniqueness they have time and time again shown me the importance of paving your own path, with your own rules. It’s liberating to forget the standard status quo of what society says you should be doing. My grandmother became a licensed M.D. in the 1930s at a time when opportunities for women were much more limited. My wife, Ann, is a partner at Perkins Coie, focusing on international trade and commerce.

What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?

On egos:  In general, it’s easy to develop an attitude where you begin to think you deserve certain opportunities. Don’t listen to that. There’s so much new perspective to be uncovered for those searching for their authentic selves, rather than the expectations our egos set for us. 

On criticism: At Hewitt, our work is public and undergoes a very public review process. I have learned to not take opinions personally and look at any feedback – agreeable or disagreeable -- as an opportunity for growth. Critique is a necessary part of the process and in the end helps make you a better designer and person.

How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?

Ask, “what does this person need and how can I help?” Architecture revolves around personal relationships, and at Hewitt, our relationships with our clients and partners are as important as our relationship with the public. We expand our contacts by continuing to make a positive impact with our work.

What would you do differently in your career?

As you get older, you realize the value of having broad experiences, both positive and negative. I’ve learned and changed along the way as I have navigated my career in architecture. I never consider my past efforts a waste or a mistake; they’ve all helped shape me and given me the perspective I have today. All those decisions and experiences were right for those moments years ago and right for today --from doing my master’s program in Rome to currently leading the design of skyscrapers in Seattle.

What would be the title of your autobiography?

“Fueled by Caffeine and Curse Words!”

We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. 

Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.

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