Reflections on a Career in Leadership

There is an adage that states, “the only time that you should ever look back, is to see how far you have come.” As I look back at my career and the course that I have taken, I think how about not only how far I have come but how I got to where I am today. I assess the lessons that I have learned along the way in my career. I often think about what it took and how I can share what I learned with others on their path. As a student of history, ingrained in my psyche is that “you cannot move forward until you look back.” I continue to seek to put my experiences into context to understand what I can do to play and pay those forward.

Throughout my career, I have seen transit from different vantage points and perspectives as I attained significant accomplishments in my transportation career. I was at LA Metro for nineteen years, leading the budget department of a large, growing public agency. I culminated my career there as Chief Operations Officer, leading the third largest bus fleet in the nation. Then I went to Charlotte, North Carolina to become the first female CEO at the Charlotte Area Transit System. After five years in Charlotte, I joined Federal Transit Administration where I led the agency in exercising its authority for the first time for safety oversight of a transit agency. Next, I worked in the private sector as Senior Vice President at AECOM as the lead for public transit marketing in the Americas, being one of the few women in a senior executive level position at the company. After two years, I transitioned to role that I am in today, as an entrepreneur and partner at InfraStrategies, which is a small boutique consulting firm providing strategic advisory services in transportation. Also, over the last few years, my interests expanded to serving in decision-making positions on non-profit and corporate boards of directors. I have served on industry and association boards including Eno Center for Transportation and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and most recently with the support from networking affiliations, I have since received appointments to boards of private and publicly traded companies.  

In retrospect, I feel that I have attained my career goals and objectives. The path was not always as direct as I would have liked. But I also realize that what I have achieved was not all due to me to my skills and tenacity. Recently, I was reviewing a list espousing the “Seven Rules of Life.” Upon reviewing the list of sayings, Rule Number 5 stood out: “It is alright not to know all the answers, they will come to you when you least expect it”. This encapsulates a critical lesson that took me time to learn. The most demanding thing for me as I climbed the career ladder was making the transition from an individual contributor to collaborator. Even though I had passion and persistence, I must admit that I did not always have all the answers. As I assumed more responsibility, there were a lot of things that I thought I knew but there were also a lot of things that I did not know. Often, I thought I knew what was best to which I attribute that as a natural leadership tendency based on one’s position or title. That is not always the case.  Over the years as I rose to higher positions in my career, the reality became increasingly evident for me that I could not do it all by myself.

 While working at LA Metro I distinguished myself in the budgeting and finance areas, but my goal was to be a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) rather than a Chief Financial Officer (CFO). I wanted to broaden my skills in Administration and Transit Operations. I became inspired by my predecessor in the budget department who left to go LA Metro to go to the City of Los Angeles to assume the leadership role at the Department of Transportation. Over the years at LA Metro, I had developed mentors in the executive suite and benefitted from their advice and guidance. With the help of the CEO, Julian Burke and the CFO, Dick Brumbaugh, I was able to pursue major career transitions. Brumbaugh would have lunch with our management team in the budget department on a weekly basis. Initially, I was reluctant because I was spending my free time with my boss’s boss. But eventually I understood that he provided an opportunity to interface with my direct manager who also attended the regularly scheduled lunches but also with him as the department executive on a collaborative basis every Wednesday. He would ask each of us about our current work and what we were interested in doing next in our career. I shared with him that I wanted to be a CAO and was not interested in audit and treasury which were hallmarks of a finance career. When the CAO position became available, the CFO recommended that I fill that vacancy. The CEO was also extremely supportive of my career aspirations efforts and provided me with his insight on issues in my roles in budget and when I became CAO he personally tutored and guided me through some complex Human Resource decisions. After change in leadership at LA Metro, I was still able to attain the sponsorship from the new CEO, Roger Snoble and Deputy CEO, John Catoe who both believed in workforce development. They encouraged and supported my participation in programs to improve and augment my leadership skills. They helped me grow in my career.

I was able to participate in the major industry leadership programs including Leadership APTA and Eno Transit Executive Seminar where I developed a deeper understanding of the value of relationships. These programs provided formal and informal advice. They provided opportunities to expand my peer networks, increase my visibility to and knowledge of the transit industry, my exposure to leaders beyond my own agency in the industry who later became mentors, and to expose me to professional coaches which led to formal advisory relationships that supported my initiatives. These programs also helped me to understand the value of sponsors not only and helped me develop more of those relationships in the industry. I gained an understanding that if I had a problem, I was not alone. If there was an issue or problem that needed resolution that I had access to resources between my peer network and industry leaders and I could form my own kitchen cabinet. I learned that I did not need to do it by myself.

I have sought advice and direction from those with experience and wisdom in the industry. I have used those networks and relationships to leverage knowledge to collaboratively create opportunities and solutions. I have reached a point in my career where I have determined that is important to me to set a path for others to achieve. I have realized that despite the challenges of being a minority woman that I have had significant opportunities. It is important for me to give back, to give advice and recommendations to others. I have actively been involved with Eno and APTA on their leadership programs and I have served on the Women Transportation Seminar International Board to support opportunities for advancing women in transit. I have been a former mentor through the APTA Middle Manager Program and with WTS Los Angeles and Washington DC chapters. I have also been involved in supporting Conference of Minority Transportation Officials. Leaders and members of Latinos in Transit are also close colleagues from working together at Los Angeles and with APTA. I applaud and support their efforts also.  I also have informal mentoring relationships. Others made time for me, so I make time to try to provide guidance based on my experiences. I take on relationships to not only give back but to learn something new. The benefits go both ways. I encourage you to be mentors—to listen and to learn.  You will enjoy the experience—the commitment to helping others grown in their career is motivational and inspiring.  

Carolyn Flowers has 30 years of experience developing a deep knowledge of transportation at the local and federal levels. Carolyn is intimately familiar with the federal funding and financing programs available to transportation projects, including the Capital Investment Grants, RAISE, Bus and Bus Facilities, and TIFIA programs. 

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