Management & Operations

Women in Transit: 4 Top Execs Reveal the Secrets of Their Success

Posted on May 1, 2002 by Tracy Daly, Southern California Regional Rail Authority

Sheer competence and a passion for transportation are the common threads among four highly successful transit professionals who just happen to be women. They are Shirley DeLibero of Houston Metro; Sharon Dent of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit in Tampa, Fla.; Minnie Fells Johnson of the Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority in Ohio; and Celia Kupersmith of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District in San Francisco. These four women all have unique and compelling stories about the roads they have traveled to high-profile leadership positions. Each chose not only to work in the public sector but to actively lead their industry in a traditionally male-dominated setting. “In the public transportation industry, women have been making great inroads,” Kupersmith says. “It all boils down to being good at what you do and carrying out your tasks and responsibilities.” The other women couldn’t agree more. “I’ve learned the business from top to bottom, and I’m convinced when you know your business, people tend to respect you and try not to undermine you,” DeLibero says. “I do think the challenges for women in this industry are diminishing because we’re getting more and more competent and qualified women in transit.” The feeling of acceptance is shared by both Dent and Fells Johnson, though that does not always mean there isn’t some resentment along the way. “There is both an advantage and disadvantage to being a woman in a top position,” says Fells Johnson. “Although it allows for visibility in the community and the industry, it also allows us to be easily recognized, and there can be some resentment in that.” Here are their stories. Shirley DeLibero Once an assembly line worker, Shirley DeLibero worked her way to the top echelons of transportation one job at a time. She started by convincing a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority supervisor to hire her to oversee a streetcar refurbishment project that was over budget and behind schedule, then made it a success. DeLibero rose in the organization, then moved on to transit jobs in Washington, D.C., Dallas, New Jersey and, finally, Houston, where she oversees a system of 1,440 buses and 3,600 employees and plans for a light rail system. DeLibero’s biggest operational challenge came in her first transportation job in Boston, managing a project to overhaul streetcars involving 19 trade unions. “Gaining their respect was the toughest thing and definitely the most rewarding thing in my career,” DeLibero says. “I am a very hands-on person, and they liked that. I roll up my sleeves and get in the pits with them. Once I did that, it helped me in my whole career. It gave me perspective: If you take care of the people, they take care of the product.” DeLibero’s major career moves have taught her how to come into an organization, evaluate it and make changes, all within a few months. “I quickly make the move to reorganize,” she says. “If you drag it on, it becomes a morale problem and really puts the whole agency in an uproar.” She recalls finding some gratifying responses to her efforts. One day, she returned to her office from a hectic day and found an e-mail from an employee. “We are so glad you are here,” it said. “You are a breath of fresh air. But, more important than that, we are gaining our sense of pride in the organization again.” Her efforts also led to the groundbreaking of Houston’s first light rail line. “The Houston area has been trying to build rail for more than 20 years, and it is now happening — in 2004, it will be a reality,” she says. DeLibero sees an industry changing with technology, which not only fosters higher productivity but also creativity and “out of the box” thinking. She hired a chief information officer because technology options can save operating dollars. But she still believes that most transit agencies need to spend more resources to train employees on new technologies and products. “I don’t think we spend enough in this industry training people,” she says. DeLibero maintains that, too often, budget-cutting knives slice into training and marketing. “Marketing is your image. If you are trying to increase ridership and you are trying to be more sensitive to customers, you need it,” DeLibero emphasizes. “And with training, you are making sure that your people get to be better at what they do.” DeLibero also has worked to change the profile of transit executives, demanding both salary and title to elevate management to a new level. “It is time we look at transportation as a business. I have a billion-dollar budget, so I want to be president and CEO and you have to pay me like a president and CEO,” she says. “I go to these meetings with the head of Reliant Energy, the head of Shell Oil, and they see me as president and CEO of a corporation that happens to be transportation.” In talks to high school students, DeLibero finds when they hear “transportation career,” they envision being a bus driver or mechanic. “I tell them that we have lawyers, we have financial people, we have marketing people,” DeLibero says. “We need the best and brightest.” Sharon Dent A planner by profession and transportation executive by choice, Sharon Dent has plotted transportation improvements in Memphis, Tenn., helped run the public transit system in Phoenix and now operates a 200-bus system with 560 employees that serves 8 million passengers annually. As executive director of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) in Tampa, Fla., Dent is overseeing construction of an electric streetcar system and growing bus service. Dent arrived in Tampa in 1990 to find that senior staff had departed, a financial crisis required service cuts and a negative audit demoralized the remaining staff. Within the first year, she was facing a major labor dispute. “It was a wild first year and a half,” Dent says. “I had no money, I was cutting service and I had no staff.” When she fired some employees who staged a sickout, Dent was painted as the villain. Death threats were made and bodyguards were assigned to protect her for five months. Her refuge was reading science fiction books, she laughs. “Some people would call me stubborn,” Dent says. “I have a reputation of being persistent and determined.” Dent embarked on changing the transit agency’s culture through subsequent labor contracts. She pushed for pay-for-performance and built more flexibility into the labor contracts to encourage risk taking among employees who traditionally aren’t very upwardly mobile. Several years ago, management and workers agreed to create a more dynamic transit organization, one that offered opportunities for rank-and-file employees to advance based on improved skills. “I created an employee relations committee where substantive discussions can occur in a non-confrontational setting. Talking and working together helps facilitate change. You can see the tension melt away.” Dent says she believes in rewarding employees for good performance, as evidenced by bonuses and promotions employees can now earn through skills testing. She is particularly proud of the pay-for-performance approach that transformed the agency. Employees can now compete for new jobs while retaining seniority in their previous job so they can return if the new position doesn’t work out. Such innovation encourages employees to take more initiative without jeopardizing their livelihood. “We don’t easily attract top-quality people to our industry. It’s not glamorous. It’s hard to hire and retain drivers and mechanics,” Dent says. “Now, our mechanics can self-promote based on their skills. If they put effort in, there’s an immediate payoff.” And, under the new system, employees can advance without waiting for a position to open up. Dent is committed to fundamentally changing how bus procurements are handled in Florida. She doggedly pursued a pooled statewide bus procurement that would save time and money for all agencies involved and give them more clout with manufacturers. HART now administers such a pool. “It took incredible time and angst, but it was worth it,” Dent says. “Everyone benefits, particularly smaller properties. We’re saving between $2,000 and $7,000 per bus, depending on the type of vehicle.” Today Dent’s agency is completing a 2.3-mile historic streetcar system that was due to open in the spring of 2002. Economic development in the corridor is booming due partly to the streetcar investment. Bus ridership continues to climb 6%, and labor relations are much improved. An impressive turnaround for Dent and the agency. “Every day is interesting and challenging on this path I have chosen to travel,” says Dent. Minnie Fells Johnson A former welfare director who holds a doctorate in public policy and administration, Minnie Fells Johnson has held high-level transit positions in Ohio and Florida. For more than five years, she has been CEO of the Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority in Dayton, Ohio, which operates 39 routes, serves 13 million passengers annually and employs more than 700 people. Her biggest challenge was taking over the Miami Valley transit system and discovering it had little connection with its community. “It was very, very difficult to begin to launch the organization and deal with some critical issues because there was a lack of understanding, lack of connectivity and we did not have a constituency,” Fells Johnson recalls. “For the most part, stakeholders didn’t care whether we lived or died.” But Fells Johnson worked to turn that around. “We have been able to transform the organization in terms of its image by working with the community and helping the urban core revitalize,” she says. “We are partnering with the local community and the business community. We have a different image.” Fells Johnson has worked to connect with both the community and her employees. “I am really pleased that when I step out on the street, the bus operators are always honking their horns and waving at me,” she says. “They recognize me and they like the fact that I am a household name. They call me Minnie and I am happy about it.” That doesn’t eliminate all problems with employees. Fells Johnson has faced workplace violence head-on. After the Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority fired a bus driver who had been recruiting KKK members, the administration building was sprayed with shotgun blasts on Feb. 23, 1999. One employee sat only inches from where the pellets struck. “We are still struggling with that issue,” Fells Johnson says. “No one knows how to deal with it. It can happen to anyone.” On another front, she says technology presents both benefits and difficulties for the industry. “I am pro-technology because I think there are some real gains that could be made in terms of safety, in terms of security and in terms of on-time performance. It is making everybody’s job better, but at the same time it is making it much more complicated and therefore much more challenging,” Fells Johnson says. Another industry challenge is that most people have not realized what a critical role public transportation can play in important society efforts, such as putting welfare recipients back to work, she says. “People still view transit as a lot of money to serve a few. And we have not won the battle,” Fells Johnson says. “We must continue to make folks aware that we have a lot to offer.” Celia Kupersmith Celia Kupersmith has roamed all over the map during her career, holding transportation positions in Houston and Austin, being executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission in Reno, Nev., for five years, then arriving at the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District in San Francisco in 1999. There, Kupersmith manages a staff of more than 1,000, providing bus and ferry services while also managing the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge. She has seen the best and worst of transportation, dealing with fatalities, bomb scares, labor disputes and challenging mergers of transit services. In Austin, Kupersmith, then manager of the planning department, recalls tackling the absorption of the University of Texas shuttle system. The city bus system — 260 buses carrying 8 million passengers annually — was to absorb the university system of 80 orange-and-white, student-driven shuttles, also carrying 8 million passengers annually. The university desired a professionally managed and operated transit system rather than non-scheduled shuttles showing up somewhat erratically with student drivers at the wheel wearing shorts and T-shirts. “The university at the very top level supported it, but it seemed like nobody else did,” Kupersmith recalls. “The students absolutely hated it. It was an unbelievable challenge to get everyone to see the true value of this partnership between Capital Metro and the university.” Surprisingly, Kupersmith points to a serious bomb scare at the Regional Transportation Commission in Reno as one of her best days in transportation. While it turned out there was no bomb, the organization evacuated all buses, dispatched supervisors to pick up any children and asked drivers to return potentially dangerous buses for examination. Only one bus driver refused to stay at the wheel. “It was the best day because everybody in the organization knew exactly what to do and did their job in the most exemplary fashion possible,” she says. “It was great teamwork.” Kupersmith’s most valuable training in the industry came from her mentor, Tony Kouneski, then her boss at Capital Metro in Austin but now with the American Public Transportation Association. He taught her the value of an adaptable management style, for one. “Don’t try and make your personal management style work in every organization, because you will fail,” she warns. “That is one of the biggest problems that managers can face. Be sure to become aware of each organization’s culture and needs.” Kupersmith praises technology’s impact on transportation, citing its ability to improve information flow within an organization. “People have easier access to me through the Internet and e-mail systems and they have greater accountability for how they use this access and information. It is changing the management dynamic in ways that I did not expect,” she says. In car-crazy California, Kupersmith sees one of transit’s biggest challenges as getting passengers out of their convenient, self-contained cars. “In today’s hectic lifestyle, for many people, commuting is the only time they are alone. I especially think of working moms,” Kupersmith says. “Most of them feel like their lives are not in their own control. It is only when they are in their car that they do have some personal control. This is a challenge that the transit industry has a hard time addressing and many rarely even talk about.” To try to get people to use public transportation in the Bay Area, the district is developing a zero emissions bus demonstration program with other area transit properties. The district also purchased a ferryboat and is developing an improved feeder bus network that links bus and ferry passengers.

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