Transit CEO Interview Series: Brad Sheffield (Jaunt)
Insights from Insight
Brad Sheffield, Executive Director at JAUNT
The Insights from Insight interview series aims to gather the collective wisdom of the most accomplished and seasoned General Managers and CEO's in transit and transportation. These are men and women who have spent entire careers leading and managing steeped in the dual challenges of daily chaos and daily execution. Insight Strategies works in many industries; none are quite like transportation.
We are of the opinion that it takes and extreme talent to just make it in this industry. The people we interview have not only "made it" but have thrived. Their stories and the lessons we can gain from them are presented here.
Brad Sheffield was elected to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to represent the Rio Magisterial District in November 2013. Professionally, Brad serves as the Executive at JAUNT Inc., a Charlottesville Virginia based rural public transportation system. He has been working in the transit industry for 16 years, in both public and private transit planning roles.
Brad earned a Master's degree in Urban and Environmental Planning from the University of Virginia with a focus on transportation planning. He began his career in the public sector developing a regional rural transit program for 14 counties in Southwest Georgia. In 2005 he became the Transit Planning Director for Tallahassee's transit system, StarMetro. In 2008 he moved to the private sector and began working with Renaissance Planning Group as a transit planning project manager. In 2011 he returned to the public sector, joining JAUNT.
At his core, Brad is a transportation and land use planner. He has focused his career on community development. He has worked on projects ranging from regional transportation planning and transit projects to urban community design and rural land preservation. He is passionate about helping communities foster the traditional characteristics that make places great to work, raise a family, and retire.
Kevin Catlin: The idea for these interview is that a young Brad Sheffield could pick this interview up and hear from an older, wiser Brad Sheffield, to learn what he would do differently, what he did right… or wrong in his opinion. Do you think it's valuable to have interviews with working CEO's/General it Managers where a younger executive or a future executive could hear from someone in transit about what it takes?
Brad Sheffield: Yes, I think so. I think the audience has got to be receptive to wanting to get that sage advice of what an older executive has gone through, tempering that with what has changed in the industry. What an older executive went through 10 years ago may not be what a younger executive coming through the ranks is going through right now, but still understanding what they have to offer and what they have to say could be put to use. It's like going to conference or meetings, or the analogy of stepping into a library: You're not going to be overwhelmed with knowledge and information just by walking into a library, you have to find the book you want, check it out, read it and absorb it, and then learn to apply it. I think a lot of young leaders forget you can't just be told; you have to learn from it.
KC: That leads me to my next question. Are there any 2-3 pivotal experiences that you have learned a lesson from or that you wish you could've been prepared for or handled differently?
BS: I didn't know much about the politics of transit when I was getting started. When I was in Southwest Georgia, I had a person, who is now a good friend, a county manager, call me up, and he asked "What are you doing to my county?" and there was a little more profanity in the conversation than what I'm giving. (Laughs). And he was upset. I was trying to create a rural service in his county and I had no idea that I probably should've sat down with the county leadership and actually tell them what I was doing before I started doing it. So that they knew when constituents would come to him with questions, that he would know how to respond. I don't know if any education would've helped me with that, but it's where getting some seasoned advice from a veteran would've been great. Someone could've told me that I should talk to those county managers or the local leadership involved with the project, to let them what I was doing. That conversation was very eye opening, and like I said he's a good friend now, but they say the best friendships are forged in fire, I'm sure we'll be friends for a long time.
Some of the other things I wish I was better prepared for that someone could've told me about was the way bureaucracy and government works, from the federal to the state, the regional entities in between. Everyone is looking at the same project through a different lens, and what may be important to one entity may not even be on the spectrum of what's important to another, and it's always a challenge to see where those things overlap and keep a focus on the endgame to provide everyone with the results they're looking for. I didn't really have anyone in my experience step forward and help me with that, it's something I had to learn on my own, but it was worth the lesson.
KC: Excellent, you just saved someone some a headache by sharing that story. They'll make sure their constituents are on board and that will most certainly help someone. Have you had a mentor or even a book-mentor that has guided you as a leader?
BS: Yes, I've had a lot of guidance from friends, family, and colleagues, you know, you get little nudges along the way, like a ball rolling down the road. One that stands out to me is a gentleman named Gary Oakerland, he was an urban design professor at UVA and as I stepped into planning my graduate degree I came in with a very technical mindset. Numbers and engineering, if the two lines weren't equal they weren't parallel, that kind of stuff. And he offered a different way of looking at things, a more conceptual view. What that did challenged me. You know you take a road or street map and every curve or turn is the true road, but when you look at a subway map you're not going to be able to capture every turn in the route and on the line. What he did is help me understand how that relates how people look at the maps, how they understand where they're going, and how to communicate ideas to people. It's a longer conversation but he helped me learn how to take that data driven information and make it more easily digestible, for example when you take ridership numbers, just data, and how you can convert that data into something you can better communicate to whomever your audience is.
Another aspect to leadership is how we present ourselves and ideas. I have another person who was a mentor. A guy name Whit Blanton from my consulting years. He taught me that it is not about prepping for a presentation, it's about knowing your material. The better you know your stuff, the better you can present and engage your audience. My audience these days might be a board or a group of coach operators. This guy could go into a meeting and blow away everyone with his knowledge, and how he connected with the audience. To this day I still strive to make that level of connection with my constituents.