This article was originally published November 16, 2018.
With the continuing wave of retirements as well as top leadership making career pivots, transit boards are challenged with searching for the right person to lead their agency. And, with the concept of public transportation shifting to a multimodal approach that includes first- mile, last-mile connections, including ride-hailing services, bike-shares, and improved real-time connectivity, the job description for the public transit leadership is changing. To that end, one of the key steps for finding a new CEO is developing a profile for the ideal candidate that complements the transit agency’s needs and future plans.
To discuss these and other steps, METRO spoke to board members who recently chaired their board’s search for a CEO, as well as a public transportation search firm, to learn their path for hiring a new leader.
Identify interim leader
Seems like an easy step, but identifying who is going to run the transit agency in the interim is the first important decision transit boards make, both because they will have to carry out their own job responsibilities, as well as lead a transit agency’s employees through an important transition. It can also help inform the board’s timetable for replacing its CEO.
After W. Curtis Stitt announced that he would be retiring from his post as President/CEO of Columbus’ Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), the board appointed its current VP of Operations, Emille Williams, to serve in the interim.
“We wanted to be planful and deliberate as far as finding who the next CEO was going to be, so we didn’t want to rush and gave ourselves until the first quarter of 2018,” says Trudy Bartley, vice chair of the COTA board and chair of its selection committee. “We were only able to take our time with the search because we felt like were in good hands with Mr. Williams, who was also one of our final candidates.”
COTA announced the hiring of Joanna Pinkerton in March, which was just slightly ahead of their timetable.
In Atlanta, following the somewhat sudden departure of Keith Parker in October 2017, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority’s (MARTA) board quickly identified somebody to lead in the interim and took that person’s wishes into consideration when setting a timetable.
“Because most of the board was engaged in the search process for Mr. Parker about five years before, this wasn’t our first rodeo, so we knew we had to identify someone to lead the organization in the interim,” said MARTA Board Chair Fred Daniels. “We were informed by the person, who has been with MARTA for many years, that they had no desire in holding the position for too long.”
Hire search firm
The next step COTA and MARTA took was to identify an executive search firm — BeecherHill and Krauthamer & Associates, respectively — and begin developing the requirements for the position.
Jeff Popovich, principal at KL2 Connects LLC, a firm that specializes in the public transit sector, explains a bit about that process.
“After we’ve been awarded a contract, the first thing we do is set up an appointment to get together with the board to find out exactly what they are looking for in a leader,” he says. “It really varies from agency to agency what that person will look like — some agencies have a bigger emphasis on finding somebody who is good with the public or the community, while others place a bigger emphasis on somebody who is strong in operations.”
Popovich adds that as part of the process, firms will not only speak to the board and other key executives within the agency, but also key stakeholders in the community, including business and advocacy groups, and the riders themselves in some cases.
“We had our firm go out and speak to 80 stakeholders, which included corporations, public officials, elected officials, community leaders, riders, and more, because we felt it was important to understand what the needs are for transit and mobility, particularly when it comes to the workforce in our community,” says Bartley. “We really wanted to understand what ridership thought about COTA’s current operations, as well as hear their ideas for improvements and opportunities that may help us attract new ridership.”
Build candidate profile
Popovich explains that once search firms are finished interviewing all of the key stakeholders, they will then build a profile of the person the agency is looking for and immediately begin recruiting and advertising for the position.
Daniels explains that in MARTA’s case, the board was looking for a much different person this time around compared to the five years that had passed between Keith and Jeffrey Parker.
“We had stabilized our finances and really rebuilt the trust and confidence of our community, as well as the corporate and government leaders here in Atlanta, under Keith Parker,” he says. “Now that we were on a more firm foundation, there are many entities here that want to partner with MARTA on the expansion of services. So this time around, we wanted to bring in a person that had been successful in the past with the delivery of expansion opportunities, both inside and outside the industry.”
Daniels adds that also unlike the past, the agency was willing to look outside the industry.
“We didn’t want to limit ourselves, and knew that if we went outside the industry, there could be some inherent weaknesses that would probably need to be strengthened by somebody, such as an operations officer, who had a strong transit background,” he says. “Outside of being able to lead an organization, we were really focused on someone that could bring in large projects safely, on-time, and on budget.”
In Columbus, Bartley explains that COTA also was willing to look outside the industry to fill its top position.
“Due to the fact that Columbus is a different place then it was even five years ago, understanding how we link mobility to all the development that we see, whether it’s residential or commercial, and how we could be part of the decision-making process was key for us,” says Bartley. “We didn’t necessarily want nor rule out somebody who had run a bus or transit system before, but we knew that with the current discussion going on around issues, such as first-mile, last-mile and on-demand services, that the agency needed a thought leader and influencer, who could come to the table and make COTA a player, as far as how we move forward in the mobility circle.”
Bartley adds that outside of being a visionary, COTA was looking for somebody who could lead the agency and reinforce the message to employees that they have a stake in the agency’s success, as well as what it will become in the future.
After building the profile for the agency and recruiting for the position, Popovich explains that firms will then begin interviewing candidates. In KL2’s case, he says that at least two of their principals will take part in the interview process, so they can have more than one set of eyes on a candidate. They will then do background checks and other due diligence, before providing a final list of candidates to the board so they can conduct interviews, having worked closely with the board throughout the process.
“For a full CEO search, we would typically present an agency with a number of candidates that we typically agree on in the beginning, which is usually three to six, but it can vary,” he says.
For those final candidates, KL2 will put together, what they call a briefing book that they give to the board of directors, which contains background on each of the candidates, including their resumes, reference checks, and background investigation information, so they have one document that lists all of the candidates for that position.
“Next, we work with them to schedule the candidates for interviews, so that they can get to know them,” he says. “From there, it’s up to them how they conduct the process and who they ultimately choose.”
At COTA, Bartley says the agency whittled its list to three finalists, before choosing Pinkerton, who previously served as COO of the Transportation Research Center Inc. at Ohio State University.
“I really do believe that we got the best candidate for the job, and as a board, we were pleased with the three finalists we had to choose from,” Bartley says.
Meanwhile, after MARTA’s search firm interviewed 11 candidates, the agency’s board selected Jeffrey Parker, who most recently served as VP at HNTB Corp.’s Atlanta office.
“Our board was very satisfied with the process, in terms of the candidates that were brought to the table; their experience, both inside and outside the industry; their competence; and their employment history and the projects they worked on and completed,” Daniels says. “I can tell you that Jeff was selected from a top tier of candidates that thought well enough of our transit system to interview for the position.”