Board Shadow Program participant Karen Courtney
Encouraging and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders: Board Shadow Program participant Karen Courtney
Karen Courtney was once a girl who practiced calculus for fun. Now, she is a woman who studies codebooks in her spare time and says professional certifications are like potato chips because you can’t have just one. This code enforcement and building safety professional is a lifelong learner who has no plans to stop studying any time soon.
“I’m one of those people who, once I start delving into things and finding it interesting, I tend to keep delving in further,” Courtney said. She also believes in working hard and doing her best, whether it is required or not.
When she started as a code enforcement officer, Courtney discovered that Montana does not require its officers to be certified. However, after attending the American Association of Code Enforcement (AACE) conference and hearing people talk about International Code Council certifications, she decided to get certified anyway.
“I said to myself, ‘Montana doesn’t require it, but if I want to be a professional, I need to do the work.’ You don’t slide in life. You do the work.” Courtney started studying on nights and weekends when she got home from the AACE conference. When test day came, there was a bad snowstorm, and her exam site was 90 minutes away, but she didn’t let that stop her. She was determined to take the test and it is a day she will never forget.
“I was so proud of myself for passing,” Courtney said. “I had been out of school for so long. I was like, ‘Wow, I can actually still pass tests!’”
That snowy test day confirmed for Courtney that she was on the right track. From there, she has continued to study and expand her professional knowledge. Her list of certifications includes code enforcement officer, property maintenance and housing, zoning inspector, fire inspector I, housing and zoning code specialist, building inspector, commercial building inspector, and residential building inspector. Now, she is studying the legal and administrative modules in preparation for taking the building official exam.
“I feel that if you’re going to call yourself a professional, you need to take the tests. You need to get certified,” Courtney said.
Building safety as a second career
Her list of accomplishments may sound like it belongs to someone who joined the industry early on, but this is a second career for Courtney. She left an entertainment industry job she loved in 2005 when injuries sustained in a car accident made it impossible for her to keep up with the job’s travel demands.
While recovering from the accident, Courtney took long walks around town as part of her physical therapy, first with a walker and later with a cane. During her walks, she started noticing nuisance properties in her neighborhood. She also encountered long stretches of sidewalk that were in disrepair, causing her to wonder how other people with mobility aids were coping. In some places, the sidewalks were impassable.
When Courtney saw an online job posting for a code enforcement officer position, she had no idea what the job entailed She googled ‘What is code enforcement?’ and began her research. She noticed the connection between what she was seeing on her walks and this new role where she could make an impact in her community.
“I thought, ‘Well, I can either be part of the solution, or I can sit back in my house and complain and not do anything about it,’” she said. “I’d rather be part of the solution to make it a better place and help other people.”
So, Courtney applied for the job. She applied again, and again, and again. Each time, the municipality chose someone else for the role. The first person lasted one day. The next lasted a month. The third one lasted six months. Finally, the fourth time Courtney applied, they offered her the job of code enforcement officer for Anaconda-Deer Lodge County. Seven years later, she is now the building official, fire inspector, playground safety inspector and safety officer for the city of Laurel, Montana.
“I guess they figured, ‘This girl keeps hounding us, maybe we should hire her,’” Courtney said with a laugh. She jumped right in and embraced the challenge, successfully building a new department from the ground up. “I’m really proud of the program I built,” she said. “I never knew I would be changing careers in my 40s and starting to learn something brand new again. It’s a totally different world, but I love it.”
The International Code Council Board Shadow Program and the importance of networking
As Courtney networked with other industry professionals, she heard about the Code Council’s Board Shadow Program. It was on her radar, but she didn’t know much about it until, one day, her mentor and friend Jim Brown, an International Code Council board director, called out of the blue. His questions about her experience and history in the industry perplexed her. That is, until the end of the call when Brown asked her to be his board shadow.
“I was over the moon about it,” she said. “It felt like a huge honor to be selected.” The 2021 ICC Annual Conference in Pittsburgh was Courtney’s first time attending a conference or the code hearings. She described the experience as a privilege and said one of the highlights was having the opportunity to connect with others who are equally passionate about keeping people safe.
“It was really neat finding out where everyone was from and sharing ideas,” Courtney said. “Also, being heard. Not just getting to listen to what others have to say, but having people listen to what you recommend as well. That doesn’t happen all the time.”
She is also grateful for the many opportunities to learn. Whether it was attending committee meetings, listening to speakers, or partaking in conversations between sessions, the knowledge sharing was ongoing and she brought what she learned back to her jurisdiction. Also, attending the Code Council’s code development hearings inspired her to get more involved with her state code hearings when she went home.
“I highly recommend that people apply for it and experience it,” Courtney said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” In addition to recommending the Code Council’s Board Shadow Program, it’s no surprise that learning is at the top of her list of advice for anyone who is starting out in the industry.
Building safety professionals should never stop learning
“Never stop learning. I recommend not only taking courses for certification but expanding your knowledge into learning effective communication. Continue to build out on your core learning and to understand different aspects of it. Not only what we do and why we do it but also how to deal with people, including difficult people. Things are always changing, and we not only have to worry about the technical side, but we need to worry about the human side of it too.”
It’s that human side that inspires Courtney to do her best. She loves seeing the end product and knowing that people will be safe because of the work she does. She also takes pride in knowing that she was part of her community changing and growing, and loves bridging the gap between her department and the public.
“We have a common goal, and I want to figure out how we can work together,” she said. “We all want to achieve a building that is safe for the public so we’re not losing lives. Let’s do it right and let’s do it safely so everyone can have a nice, safe place to go.”
It’s no surprise that this lifelong learner has plans for achieving more in the months to come. “I’m still learning. I’m continuing with my education and thinking about earning more certifications,” Courtney reflected. “I’ve shown my kids that it’s never too late to change careers. You are never too old to learn.” It sounds like her kids are listening. When Courtney uses her potato chip analogy to describe certifications, her son says, “They’re like Pokémon, Mom. You gotta catch’em all!”
|To help facilitate inclusive, collaborative relationships between seasoned code professionals and emerging industry leaders, the International Code Council created its Board Shadow Program — part of its successful Safety 2.0 initiative — which provides an opportunity for emerging code professionals to “shadow” the Code Council Board of Directors at its annual conference and public comment hearings, to intercept and absorb information and experience real-time leadership as they observe their board mentors.
Now in its fifth year, the program provides an opportunity for the Code Council board to connect to diverse emerging professionals from different socio-demographic backgrounds and enables senior leaders to hear a different level of thinking to real-time issues facing young code professionals today. The board gets a much broader range of views on strategic, complex and critical issues, and a feedback loop of challenge, solution, development and learning is created. The program demonstrates the benefits of investing in future code development leaders and helps create a diverse pipeline of “ready-to-go” leaders who understand and are already contributing to the construction industry.