Leadership in the Transportation Industry: Then and Now

Looking to the future and the unprecedented opportunity presented by the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the industry simultaneously faces an existing gap from retirements and the Great Resignation. This unprecedented infrastructure investment and the massive evolution of the workforce that’s going to deliver it means challenges for leaders are amplified. What will the next generation of leaders need to meld their expertise with the lessons learned from the past? What innovations and approaches will they bring to this legacy? 

Transportation industry veterans Jane Chmielinski, a member of STV’s board of directors, Karen Rae, STV senior strategic advisor and Eno Board member, and up-and-coming transportation leader Athena Ullah, STV chief of staff, share their advice for young professionals. 

Question (Q): What did your rise in the industry teach you about leadership skills? How will they be helpful for future leaders?

Jane Chmielinski (JC): Back then, it took longer to become an impact player. There were fewer role models for women, and the ‘rules’ were different. Today’s leaders are more accessible and more willing to listen.

While breaking into the workforce in the 1980s was clearly different from today, a few things are universal. Integrity, strong work ethic, mastering your craft and a commitment to excellence are still relevant and still bring value. 

Karen Rae (KR): Successful leaders combine knowledge, passion, respect and the ability to define clear goals. Everyone on their team knows their piece of the puzzle, and every piece matters. As leaders in transportation, we must care and understand that what we do matters. If the mission matters, so does everyone carrying it out.  

No doubt, the technological advances of today have made so much about our industry better, faster and more effective. But we can’t forego face-to-face interactions in technology’s favor. Some of the most valuable conversations of my career, whether speaking to a room of 300 people or talking over a kitchen table, required a human touch. That’s an especially important skill for a leader: utilizing technology adeptly but not hiding behind it. 

Q: How can leaders transition successfully into a new organization and accomplish their goals?

JC: To transition successfully into a new organization and accomplish your goals is not always easy. A few key points: keep an open mind and don’t constantly compare and contrast the organization you left and the one you are in now. Of course, you need to decide what is best for you, but keep that open mind and be a contributor. Ask what you can do to support the mission and demonstrate your creativity, problem solving skills and team building acumen. Be the bright light.

KR: When leading a new organization, remember an effective leader must understand and manage all the stakeholders that impact success:

  • Offering constant and honest communication with higher authorities and taxpayers.
  • Identifying and coordinating with peers and critical partners.
  • Creating and coaching a team that is held accountable while being valued and supported.
  • Managing those that stand to benefit or be affected by your project and being open, honest and supportive. For those who may even be seen as your opponents, listen and be respectful.

Q: What makes an effective leader?

JC:  The qualities of a good leader are many and also reflective of the culture and mission that your organization is advancing. But I think there are some universal attributes:

  • Be authentic. 
  • Stay curious.
  • Don’t fear failure. 
  • Find the funny every day!

Remember we all stand on the shoulders of giants, but also understand that true success occurs when we take on the responsibility to help the generations behind and ahead of us in equal measure.   

Q: What is the next generation asking of its transportation leaders?

Athena Ullah (AU): Being a leader requires you to look at tough problems and prioritize solutions that will deliver the greatest impact to the populations we serve. For my generation and those earlier in their careers, there is a clear call to drive our industry toward not just equality but equity. That means moving from providing resources equally to communities towards the recognition that some communities may need additional resources to reach equal footing and allowing them to have a hand at determining the outcomes. The IIJA is an opportunity our generation may never see again to affect change through our work on a massive scale. It’s a great responsibility but one we are ready to take on.  

Q: How do leaders move the industry toward more equitable policy and improve the allocation of resources?

AU: Today, more than ever, it is important that we leverage our diversity of experiences to deliver the most inclusive and equitable transportation solutions possible. To do this, leaders must work to steer the industry in the right direction by taking action that is both bold and measured. Firms can lead by joining larger initiatives, like the Equity in Infrastructure Project, which STV pledged to support to advance equity in our infrastructure projects. Equity encourages a totality of perspectives, so you can’t help but have a more inclusive placemaking product. As we are designing infrastructure for the next century, we can think about think about bolstering the communities we serve by:

  • Creating greater opportunities for historically underutilized businesses (HUBs) to contribute to what we build and reducing their barriers to participation.
  • Streamlining administrative processes that can be obstacles for HUBs.
  • Supporting policy reforms that help reduce the racial wealth gap.
  • Educating peers about the importance of equity in infrastructure.

The mark of strong leadership, is “acta non verba” – actions not words. 

KR: Leaders are only as strong as their teams. As we prepare to meet this moment of opportunity in our industry, we must think about how to better meet our workforce needs. With an imminent shortfall of professionals, where can we find opportunities to decrease this gap? Can we place technical professionals in the field during their last year of college, to experience the reality of the workplace? Trades already use apprenticeships. During COVID-19, doctors and nurses moved out of school a year early. Should the transportation industry follow suit? These are the types of questions leaders in our industry should be asking themselves today.

Karen Rae is a recognized transportation expert with more than 35 years of experience. She has led public transit agencies in New York and Texas. She was instrumental in the advancement of major projects, including New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and the new Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge; the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project in Washington D.C.; and the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania. She served as deputy administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration, where she played a key role in the development and implementation of the new national high-speed rail and rail safety programs. Before joining STV, Karen was with the New York State Empire Development Corporation, as a senior advisor for innovative project delivery.

Athena Ullah plays an integral operational and strategic role for STV, providing direct assistance to the CEO and Leadership Team to execute corporate initiatives. Her responsibilities include enriching client relationship management, facilitating post-acquisition integration, and advancing environmental and social governance.

Jane Chmielinski embraces industry stewardship and has been actively involved in a number of professional associations, including the Women’s Transportation Seminar; the New York Building Congress and the New York Building Foundation; the Women Builders Council of New York; the national ACE Mentor Program of America; and the Mineta Transportation Institute. She also served on the board of directors for the New York Chapter of the March of Dimes and the New York Chapter of the Women’s Forum. She was an advisory board member to the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. She is currently also a board member of Cianbro, a construction company headquartered in Pittsfield, Maine.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill