As a young child growing up, Leanne Skuse was curious about the buildings, bridges and other structures she saw on trips back and forth to Chicago to visit family. Today, as a vice president at River City Construction LLC, she is a key leader on a dynamic team that brings large-scale construction projects—such as Peoria’s new Ronald McDonald House—to life. In addition to being a strong advocate for careers in the construction industry, she focuses her time and efforts outside of the workplace on key community initiatives surrounding the education, health and safety of women and children.
Tell us about your family and childhood. Who or what were early influences on you?
I grew up in Canton, Illinois. My parents were transplants from the Chicago area, so much of my early childhood was spent riding in a car on the I-55 corridor headed up to visit family. Since we didn’t have iPads or other electronic devices to entertain ourselves, I would pass the time by drawing houses, buildings, bridges and overpass interchanges that we would see along the way. From a very early age, these trips back and forth to Chicago sparked my interest and curiosity about design and construction. My father, a retired engineer, and mother, a retired insurance auditor, took notice of my early fascination with buildings and pushed me toward classes in school that were heavily focused on STEM concepts. There was virtually no way that I was getting out of a career path in a design, engineering or math-related field!
Tell us about your education background and early career path. Did you have any mentors along the way?
For the construction industry and my specific roles within River City Construction, my educational background is a little non-traditional, as my undergraduate degree is in architecture and my graduate degree is in civil engineering. During a college internship with a design firm in Miami, I realized I was more intrigued by the construction process and watching a building come to life than I was about the development of a design. The excitement of the building experience is hard to beat. Where else can you go to work every day and see major physical progress?
As my career has evolved, several mentors come to mind who I deeply respect and strive to model my leadership qualities after. They took a vested interest in my abilities early on, provided opportunities for me to expand my leadership experience, and provided feedback for improvement (and still do!). What I admire most about two mentors in particular is that they gave me a chance to prove myself in this challenging and risky industry. In the commercial construction world, the stakes are high. Deadlines to complete projects are extremely tight; multiple millions (or billions) of dollars are on the line; and most unnervingly, commercial construction is still one of the most dangerous industries for the talented men and women in the field who make everything possible. Because of the high risk, not many are willing to take a chance on young talent. I will be forever grateful for the many opportunities I have been given in my career.
Describe your work at River City Construction and some of your major accomplishments. What has challenged you as you worked your way up the ranks?
I am so proud to be part of the River City Construction family. Our company has such a unique culture for our industry, which is created by our amazing people who inspire me every day. It is awesome and humbling to walk through the complex jobsites and structures that our teams have built—you quickly realize that you are just a tiny part of something much bigger. The sheer number of people and multitude of disciplines required to make a construction project of any size a reality is incredible; moreover, the amount of effort on every level and from every organization to make a project successful is astounding. One missing piece or faltering component can significantly and quickly impact the outcome.
All that aside, the challenge we currently face as an industry (both locally and nationally) is a major shortage of skilled labor and management. In the booming construction industry, the pains of the national labor shortage become more real every day, even in our typically insulated region of central Illinois. My colleagues and I recognize our responsibility to help solve this major issue for the future of our industry. To that end, we have been diligently working with local building trades, K-12 schools, colleges and universities to educate the younger generations, as well as teachers and guidance counselors, about the many lucrative career paths the construction industry has to offer.
Describe your involvement in the community. What causes are near and dear to you?
The collective heart of our community and its willingness to give is beyond inspirational. I’m always reminded how fortunate we are to live in an area where so many are invested in giving back to the community in which they live, work and play. Instilled by the leadership group who came before us, the leaders at River City Construction have always felt our corporate duty is to give back to the areas and communities that have helped us be successful. With that, our company encourages us at every level to give back to the causes that we are most passionate about.
Over the years, I have focused my time and efforts on key community initiatives surrounding the education, health and safety of women and children. Organizations such as the Heart of Illinois United Way, W.D. Boyce Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Methodist College, UnityPoint Health Foundation, and previous commitments with the YWCA of Canton, United Way’s Success by Six program and Junior Achievement have provided an avenue for me to make a direct impact on the issues that concern me most.
What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
For my son to be proud of my accomplishments as a mother, professionally and philanthropically. I hope to be one of his role models someday.
What inspires you?
My husband and my son.
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
How about four? Aware, Ambitious, Authentic and Amused.
What book do you think every woman should read and why?
Atlas Shrugged. Need I say more?
How do you unwind after a long day of work?
Anything outside—walking, biking, playing catch, camping, sitting around a fire, landscaping, yardwork, etc.
What is your secret to maintaining balance between your community work and personal life?
I wish someone would let me in on the secret! In my opinion, balance is completely subjective and there is no right answer. What works for one may not work for another. What works one day may not work on another. I believe that at different stages of life and career, the balance needs to be malleable so it can easily shift. For example, my husband and I currently have a small child who is in his formative years; therefore, it is more important for us to be present as parents to help mold his future. As such, I try to protect my available time that I can spend with them when I’m not traveling for work or have other community engagements. As our son gets older and is more self-sufficient, I imagine the dynamic within our family can shift again. However, I unapologetically seek the advice of any woman who has figured out the magical balance!
What do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career?
I hope to not just have one pivotal point in my career, but a series of many to continuously adapt, challenge myself, learn from and grow. To date, I’ve had many pivotal moments that have caused me to pause and self-reflect. All of those moments (whether good or bad) have tested my strength and humility, provided growth in my leadership, assisted me in recognizing my weaknesses and provided opportunities for self-improvement.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
The two essential components to thrive in life lie in our health and in our families—the significance of that combination is invaluable. At times we immerse ourselves in career commitments or work obligations, often losing sight of the reality that when tragedies arise, companies are often resilient enough to forge on, but that same sentiment does not always apply to our families.
What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
Don’t be afraid to be unconventional! Find an industry, career path or company where you can set yourself apart, learn the business and excel. Build your network and never burn a bridge—because you never know when you will need to call on someone for help. Perhaps even consider a career in the construction world! From field labor, to design and engineering, to project management, supervision, accounting, marketing, IT and risk management, the opportunities are seemingly endless. The industry has evolved significantly just in my short career because of the diverse perspectives that have been introduced, and I’m truly grateful to be a part of that evolution. PM