Management & Operations

Recruiters Help Transit Fill Top Spots

Posted on December 6, 2006 by Camella Lobo

Attracting and hiring the right candidate for a top-tier executive position in the transit industry is no easy task. When searching for high-profile candidates to fill demanding positions, there are some key factors agencies should take into consideration.

METRO recently interviewed some of the savviest executive recruiters for the transit industry. Their valuable insights may help ensure that your agency secures the right person for the job, saving your agency a lot of time and money, not to mention trouble.

Know your company
Knowing the culture of your company is a key factor in the recruitment process.

According to the executive recruiters we spoke with, this self-knowledge is essential when looking for someone to bring into the company.

“If you don’t know what your home is like, you can’t very well attract somebody to come into it,” says Stephanie Pinson, president of Gilbert Tweed Associates Inc., a high-profile executive search firm in New York City. Pinson, who specializes in insurance and transit recruiting, has successfully placed a number of high-level public transit executives all over the U.S. Her advice is to determine what type of person and background your company requires. She sits her clients down and helps them develop an understanding of exactly what their agency requires in a candidate. Compatibility in this case is extremely important to the success of the search.

“It’s a desperate loss to make a wrong match. It slows things down and gets in the way of good business,” Pinson says.

Daphne LeBlanc, president of Daphne LeBlanc and Associates in Marina del Rey, Calif., agrees. Her agency has focused exclusively on the transit industry for 17 years and understands the importance of matching the right talent to the right position.

“First and foremost, there needs to be a true understanding of what it is they want to do — what their plans and goals are,” LeBlanc says. “From there we can put together the best type of skill sets that would be necessary for an executive in that agency.”

An understanding of the direction of your agency is crucial to a successful placement. For example, matching your company’s goals with the characteristics of a candidate is important. When conducting searches, LeBlanc feels that the following questions must be addressed: Will the candidate need to be politically astute because he or she is dealing with external forces? Will this candidate need many exterior skills or will they operate primarily within the interior?

Are you experienced?
The type of experience required for the position is an important factor to consider and can be hard to gauge.

“If you don’t do that right, you waste a lot of time and energy,” says Pinson. She says that hiring the wrong candidate for a top-tier position can cost an agency well over $1 million. A thorough and accurate understanding of what types of skill sets your agency requires is an essential part of the process.

“You have to really understand what is required of the position,” Pinson says. She suggests using a search and interview process that lets you match the qualities and experience of the person you are bringing in to the requirements and objectives of the agency.

Pinson recommends hiring a candidate who matches the scope, abilities and objectives of the position. For example, she hires from within the transit industry for most transit positions. Having experience managing transit is different than the experience gained in, for example, managing an insurance company.

“Say there’s an agency that is looking for someone to efficiently manage the monies and make sure the system expands,” says LeBlanc. “Those responsibilities require certain skill sets. Not everybody can do that. Just because you are a general manager over here with certain skill sets doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a good general manager in other places.” Even the most high-level, intelligent and impressive talent can be lacking experience key to the position.

“You’ve got to hire the person who has the particular skills portfolio to do the job that you need them to do,” says LeBlanc.

Tim McNamara, managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search in Baltimore, says the most important question to ask in the beginning of the search process is: “Are you hiring someone with or without industry experience?” The amount of industry experience a candidate has is extremely important in relation to the type of position they are expected to fill in the industry.

Investing in the future
Matching the right experience with the right position is easy enough, right?

“That all sounds obvious, but it is not that obvious and requires a great deal of work,” Pinson says. Her advice to transit agencies is to use an experienced recruiter, because searching for candidates without an objective third party will limit your results.

Pinson believes traditional employment advertising will attract candidates who are out of work or on the cusp of being unemployed, not the most successful candidates in the industry. That is, after all, what you should be looking for, she says. A proactive approach will help to find the most desirable candidates.

“The big thing that we do is we get on the telephone and talk to people,” LeBlanc says. “We call people who are currently in positions, those who are doing the job right now.” She feels this is the best way to ensure your agency is getting the best talent available.

McNamara advises agencies to think of the search process as an investment decision, not an expense decision. He says what an agency is doing is investing in the future of its operation. McNamara isn’t satisfied by simply placing an employee and moving on. He says there is so much more entailed in the recruitment process.

“We define a successful search as someone who comes in and does a great job and receives accolades from the board and the community,” he says. A search firm, McNamara suggests, should be assisting its clients along every step in the process, not just during the candidate’s initial placement.

LeBlanc says that those successes are the types of things that agencies should be looking for when hiring a candidate. “That’s the kind of talent you want,” she adds, “even if their salaries are a little bit higher than you think you want to pay. Someone who has the skills and abilities to streamline your organization will afford your company an eventual cost savings.” She also believes that hiring the right candidate may financially benefit your agency, especially when you can invest the time and money necessary to achieve that reward.

Search tools are plentiful
Executive recruiting firms have a number of tools at their disposal other than just the telephone. Pinson uses a combination of networking and advertising when beginning her executive searches. After more than 20 years in the industry, she has made a lot of contacts through the networks she has created.

“We will bring people to the table who would not normally apply for the position,” Pinson says. Her network connects her to people in the industry who are always willing to take her calls, even if they may not initially be interested in filling the position. According to Pinson, her firm’s reputation in the industry opens many doors during a search.

McNamara relies on a number of databases, including the American Public Transportation Association’s. But he says that with the higher-level positions, there is much more networking involved among his contacts in the industry. Generally, his firm does without public advertisement. It does, however, emphasize handling external candidates as respectfully and non-discriminatorily as internal ones.

Diversity in marketplace
There is a huge focus on diversity in the world of public transit. All of the search firms we spoke with stressed the value their organization placed on representing an equitable and diverse industry.

“Forty percent of our senior hires are women, minorities or both,” says Pinson. “It’s a natural thing for us to think that way.” Her firm, Gilbert Tweed Associates, recently won an award from the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) for its emphasis on perpetuating diversity in the transit industry.

Daphne LeBlanc and Associates is associated with various organizations, such as the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials as well as WTS. It is these affiliations that keep the firms fishing from a pool of unique and qualified individuals. This all-inclusive attitude has offered women and minorities high-level executive positions they may have otherwise overlooked.

“We have forums and seminars that really give people more information about what’s going on in the industry, targeting women specifically,” says LeBlanc.

McNamara says that diversity is part of every search at Boyden, focusing on the inclusion of women and minorities.

Industry shift imminent?
There are some prominent trends in the industry today that your agency should be prepared for. Pinson affirms that the top executive tiers in transit management have been stable for many years. However, she says that what she and her colleagues have predicted over the years is starting to take shape.

“Forty percent of the workforce will soon be eligible for retirement,” she says. What this means is that a shift in transit management is going to begin. Pinson thinks that the second tier of management will be most influenced. This also means that more positions across the industry are going to open up, making it even more important for transit systems to find qualified people and prepare them for promotion.

“It’s time for people to move on and make changes,” Pinson says.

LeBlanc sees things much the same. She believes that many people in the industry are ready for early and traditional retirement. She surmises that over the next three to five years, there will be much changeover in the first and second tiers of management.

“That means that you are going to have an awful lot of vacancies very soon,” LeBlanc says. She believes that having a succession plan is an important tool to your organization. Planning for succession can help to minimize transitional problems.

Pinson thinks that agencies must educate themselves about the conditions in the marketplace in order to make intelligent decisions when looking for eligible candidates. Her prediction is that asking salaries in the industry will soon increase. “In order to place themselves in that market,” she says, “agencies must know what they can afford to pay and what they are able to buy.”

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