What We Can Learn from Transportation Tech Companies About Empowering Emerging Leaders

Transportation technology companies like Uber or Bird have been in the spotlight as investors push to define a path to profitability. While it’s becoming clearer that these companies have no secret sauce to delivering transportation services with a comfortable margin, it’s time for the public transport industry to begin to reflect on the tangible lessons that private sector operators can provide, such as empowering emerging leaders.

As a founding member of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (LA Metro) Office of Extraordinary Innovation (OEI), it was my job to introduce and implement new ideas. Within my first few months on the job, I entered many rooms where everyone was many years my senior with significantly more implementation experience than I had. Often, these LA Metro veterans wanted to make it clear that OEI’s proposals would end in catastrophe. Many times, my colleagues were right. As a new employee who also happened to have fewer years of experience than many other people at the agency, there was a lot I didn’t know. 

I also quickly found my more seasoned colleagues sometimes had limited perspectives. For example, we pitched a grant proposal to be submitted to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that my colleagues, in no uncertain terms,  told me was laughable. Ultimately, that proposal received the largest award from that grant cycle.     

Another time, we pitched a signal pre-emption concept to prioritize rail over cars and was told that not only was it a horrible idea, but it was also impossible because it was illegal and would kill people. Today, there is now signal pre-emption on the rail line in question and no laws were broken to implement the project, nor has anyone died due to its implementation.     

Through these experiences and many others, I found that sometimes my naiveté and ignorance of the past were assets. I could push for good ideas based on their merits and not be hamstrung by all the potential ways they might not work. 

When I left to work at Bird, a shared scooter company based in Santa Monica, the world order that I knew from LA Metro was flipped on its head. I was suddenly the seasoned and wise professional in the room. More than once I was tasked with the “clean-up” job to fix issues resulting from my colleagues’ broad organizational inexperience with      the public sector, departments of transportation, or transit agencies.

On the other hand, often my colleagues were able to look at the same problem I had been contemplating for years from a new and important perspective, resulting in a much better outcome. Not only were my colleagues encouraged to think creatively, they were rewarded for it with promotions and raises. 

I’m under no illusion that transportation technology companies are going to be able to change the forces that have shaped transportation economics for centuries, but it is important that the larger transportation industry takes lessons from what these companies have done well, including empowering emerging leaders. 

Here are the most important lessons I have learned for empowering emerging leaders working at the intersection of the public and private sectors:

  • Public agencies hire for experience; transportation technology companies hire for potential. 

Where public agencies are often relegated to outdated internal hiring processes, transportation technology companies typically have very few limitations to hiring the best talent. While public agency policies aim to increase equity and diversity among staff, they often miss the mark by discouraging emerging leaders from applying due to cumbersome hiring processes, non- competitive compensation, and requirements that can feel inaccessible to younger applicants. Emerging leaders are also typically harder to retain at public agencies due to barriers to career and salary growth. Meanwhile, transportation technology companies benefit from vast flexibility when it comes to hiring, which can better meet the needs of emerging leaders. 

  • Wisdom and inexperience can be both strengths and weaknesses. Know when to use each.

Public agencies typically overemphasize the value of wisdom. Transportation technology companies, on the other hand, over-index on naiveté. While wisdom is critically important to help us understand lessons from the past, it can also hinder the creativity to imagine what could be. Teams and organizations that encourage ideas from multiple experience levels will be better positioned to succeed.

  • Embrace the next generation and hire people who see the world differently than you do, because you need their perspective.

While I revel in hearing battle stories from the “greats” in transportation, they likely wouldn’t have dreamt up ride hailing or scooter sharing enabled by smartphones. Big, new ideas often come from those who bring new perspectives to an industry. Encourage them. 

Marla Westervelt joined the Coalition for Reimagined Mobility as the Director of Policy in February 2021. Marla has spent her career contemplating the intersection of the public and private sectors in driving towards mobility outcomes that are in the public interest. 

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