Transit CEO Interview Series - Kevin Catlin with Carolyn Flowers
Carolyn Flowers – Senior Vice President, AECOM- Former CEO, Charlotte Area Transit System – Former Chief Operations Officer for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) – Former Acting Director for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA)
Carolyn Flowers joined AECOM in March 2017 as Senior Vice President, Americas Transit Market Sector Leader with the responsibility for client and industry relations and coordinating business development in the United States and Canada.
Prior to that she spent two years at the Federal Transit Administration as Senior Advisor and, in the last nine months of her tenure, she served as the Acting Administrator.
From 2010 to 2015 she served as Chief Executive Officer/Director of Public Transit for the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), with responsibility for county-wide bus and rail transit planning and management. Full biography follows the interview.
The Insights from Insight interview series aims to gather the collective wisdom of the most accomplished and seasoned General Managers and CEOs in transit and transportation. These men and women have spent their 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 believe it takes great 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.
As you continue reading you'll see my interview questions and Carolyn's responses, sprinkled with my thoughts and personal learning about her points.
Kevin Catlin, Insight Strategies, Inc.
Kevin Catlin: Hi Carolyn, I'm grateful for you doing this. As you know the intent of these interviews is to meet with transit executives at the General Manager/CEO level. The idea is to capture your collective knowledge and understand how your experiences turned that knowledge into wisdom that can be passed on to up-and-coming transportation leaders. We hope to aid in accelerating their learning which can only come from firsthand experience.
Do you think this is a good idea?
Carolyn Flowers: I do. I think that succession planning is such a critical issue in the industry. There's an aging workforce, and I'm part of that (laughs), and we still don't see across the industry a concerted effort to address the issue. I think there is a recognition that the workforce is aging out rapidly in transit. And there are so many of us, including me, who have decided to stay a little longer. But that isn't addressing the problem of developing those who will eventually replace us. So yeah, I think it's a critical issue that we need to recognize and as you said it's important to impart the knowledge that we have, and deposit that so it can be withdrawn in the future and maybe used in a productive manner.
KC: Absolutely. And I think what you're doing here will work towards making that happen. I'm going to ask you to answer the questions as if you were counseling and coaching a young transit professional.
How did you get into transit in the first place?
CF: (Laughs) Well I didn't get into transit directly because I had a desire to be in transit. I was working for a computer company and trying to sell a system into an agency. In the middle of the sale the company that I worked for went bankrupt. So when I went in to the transit agency I said I cannot sell you this system, I need to sell myself, I need a job – and that's how I got into transit.
KC: Wonderful! And you know this better than anyone – if you talk to a lot of the leaders in the industry, they will say the same thing. They got into it and it got into their bones somehow. A great deal of our work in transportation is the understanding of culture, and why a culture at one agency is more positive, more efficient, more effective, more forward thinking than another agency of similar size and demographics.
My question about culture is this: if you were to define one thing that a GM can do that genuinely affects the culture of an agency, what would that be? Clearly, there are many things that impact organizational culture, but are there one or two that stand out to you more than anything else, anything that that can trickle down all the way from CEO to Coach Cleaner?
CF: There are a few things. I think first of all, everyone is looking for a leader. So you have to define yourself as the leader of that organization. And convey to your team that while you are in charge, you are accessible, and that you don't know everything. That as a team it is important to value the assets of the entire team, and be able to mobilize and utilize that team. I think it's important that the leader of an organization is out front and that is important, but you must value the entire team.
Insights from Insight: The statement "you are in charge, you are accessible, and you don't know everything" is very telling. Carolyn has that rare ability to be a strong, in charge leader while being connected to the people, being accessible, and relying on her team for what she doesn't know. Relying on the team is what separates leaders who are developing other leaders and those that require the ego fulfillment of having all the answers, the "go-to" guy. It is very difficult to allow others to develop their skills and leadership capabilities because of our propensity to always lead and an inability to let go of power.
I think the book "Turn this ship around" by David Marquet is an excellent example of what Carolyn is speaking about.
Secondly, you have got to communicate. You have to communicate in more than a passive manner. This means more than doing newsletters or tweeting – you have to be there with your employees. You have to provide information to them. Because they won't follow you if they don't trust you. So, they need to know that you're there for the good and the bad, and that you're listening to both.
KC: What does it mean to be trusted by your employees? Communication is such a broad brush and I thought you defined it nicely – it's not a matter of disseminating information, it's being connected to people. You also said "value the assets that they bring." The word value intrigues me. How do you believe that one behaves as a leader when they're valuing an asset?
CF: First of all it's about listening and accepting input from everyone in the organization. I mean you have to be able to take input. That doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to agree with everyone. But you have to provide an opportunity and a culture whereby everyone has an opportunity to provide that input, and that they know that you're taking that input into consideration as you make a decision. It's not necessarily that you're going to agree with all of them but you do provide some level of inclusion.
Now you can also go overboard with inclusion and then not make decisions because you want to only make decisions after you get input from everyone – so you have to balance that.
What your team is looking for is someone who can make a decision and know when it's time to basically "press the button" and move ahead.
KC: Understood. Carolyn you've worked at the highest levels of some very large agencies like LA Metro as well as smaller ones, yes?
KC: Can a leader affect the culture all the way up, down, and across, at a large agency like LA Metro as well as a smaller one?
CF: I think so. I think what you have to do is be out there so they know that you're interested in what they're doing. What I did was visited shifts, visited all the divisions, showed that I was interested in what they were doing. I went into the pit. Now they knew that technically, I wasn't competent to repair a vehicle (laughs), but they knew I was interested in what they were doing and that I wanted to get some knowledge about what they were doing. Because as a leader your job is to facilitate the resources for them to get their job done, and if you have an understanding and a relationship with them that goes really far in terms of letting them know that you do value what they're doing. And also communicating to them that my success as a leader is based on what they do. It's so important that they understand how they contribute to the overall service, and how that is valued by the customer.
Insights from Insight: Every successful leader learns what Carolyn refers to here. She explains it beautifully. The lesson is that for employees to thrive and self-motivate they need to feel they are part of the big picture and a contributor to the heart of the organization. It doesn't matter whether it is in marketing, finance, or janitorial. I tell a simple story where this connectedness, this "goal before role," mentality is explored and its return on investment explained.
KC: Well said. Thank you. Here's a question I hope you find intriguing. What would Carolyn Flowers say to Carolyn Flowers when… how old were you when you got into transit?
KC: We won't talk about how long ago that was (laughs).
CF: (Laughs) … probably late 30s.
KC: Ok. So what advice would a person from your perspective give yourself in your late 30s, who wanted to move up through the ranks, who was ambitious, who maybe wanted to run her own agency one day… what are one or two pieces of advice you would give?
CF: One piece of advice I would give that I feel is really important is, do not be afraid to move laterally. To expand your knowledge base and broaden your knowledge base. I think sometimes people get locked into a vertical career path. They focus on one area. But I found it broadened my career to include different disciplines in the agency. So not every career move is done for a promotion and money, sometimes you have to look at what you really want to learn and be more of a student of the organization. You have to take some risks on every level, but not all risks are for promotion, some are for personal enhancement.
KC: So knowledge enhancement, broadening skills, etc.
KC: Thank you for that, I have a couple more questions. A subject I always find intriguing, because it's something we work on a lot at Insight Strategies, is the understanding of what leadership actually looks and feels like. So my question is, and maybe you've answered this for us before, if you were to look back into your history … who is a great leader in your life? This could be a coach, or a parent, an uncle, or grandparent, a teacher that moved you or took an interest in you in some way. Who would that person would be?
CF: Well I must say… it is several people. I think initially, it was Julian Burke who was a CEO. Julian was a millionaire, and so he did not need to take on the assignment at LA Metro but did so out of the belief that he could make a difference and turn the agency around when it was in financial straits. You know, make some tough decisions at a time where the construction of the Red Line was going awry. And he took interest in me when I was in the Budget Department, which was key to several promotions I had after that.
And then a combination of Vick (who was the CFO), Roger Snoble and John Catoe when they came in. They gave me tremendous opportunities.
KC: Got it. Let me continue… Julian was clearly a person of high character because he didn't need to do this work at LA Metro, but out of the desire to serve. What were the characteristics of Julian that made you want to follow him?
CF: Julian came to me a couple of times when we were looking at budget while we were looking at downsizing the agency, and Julian said to me "take a cut in my salary Carolyn so that we can save somebody." You know, that's kind of a stunning statement when you're running budgets, for your CEO to tell you to cut their salary to save someone else. I was just so impressed with that. And just his interest in the details. That and his taking time to coach me when I became the CAO and he was a lawyer by trade – he said let's go over the difficult HR issues, come to my office at 6 o'clock, and I'd sit there and go over entire issues with him. He was coaching me on the job, taking the time to discuss any legal issues I might encounter on some of those HR decisions.
KC: I'm going to ask you a question that might seem a little odd but I think it's important and illustrative for students of leadership, and that is, how did Julian make you feel about yourself?
CF: He made me feel valuable. He made me feel that the work I was doing was important and critical to the agency. He looked at reports and, when he thought work was outstanding, he actually gave you credit for it. When I was leading the budget department, and people would call him to complain that they weren't getting everything they wanted, he said – don't call me, call her.
Insights from Insight: The last two answers from Carolyn are an unfailing indicator of leadership experienced on a personal level. Insight Strategies frequently asks in our classes or coaching sessions "Who were the people who most impacted you?" "How did they make you feel?" "How have their lessons continued to impact you to this day?" The answers are always a variation of one or all of these responses:
- He/She believed in me and told me I could "do it."
- Cared about me personally.
- Pushed me – would not allow me to give up.
- Was a great example to me. Walked the talk
Here we see again, in a woman of great influence, a leader in her own right giving us the roadmap to what great leaders/managers have in common. The daily behavioral traits that we at Insight Strategies have seen thousands of times. These traits or behaviors remain constant, regardless of demographic, cultural, racial or gender differences and are truly a universal guidepost for leaders and leadership impact.
KC: So there was a lot of trust there.
KC: Understood. So, Carolyn, here is my last question for you. Is there a time you can think of where professionally, you've experienced failure? If so, were there lessons that you learned that someone else could learn from your mistake? Or from a failure that happened whether it be your fault or not, so to speak?
CF: Well… there are times when you go home and regret. I felt that the decisions that were made about certain contracts, where I had tried to advance a position that we needed to diversify who was involved or who had 100% control of that contract… and I did a LOT of work, loads of presentations… but I think my failure was that I didn't realize that certain members of our Board were not going to be supporting that position. So I learned my lessons about briefing everyone to get an understanding of their positions before there's a vote.
KC: So, in a nutshell, maybe there was more homework to be done, or like our friend and colleague, Jerry Premo likes to say "understanding all the constituents" …
CF: Understanding all the constituents and making sure that you understand what their position is. It's very painful when you put a lot of work in and then your position is shot down… in public (laughs).
KC: (Laughs) Oh yeah. I think perhaps my weakest link is my desire not to be embarrassed. So the last piece is… If you were standing up in front of 20 up-and-comers, what would you say to young people who are looking to make a career in transit or transportation?
CF: Believe in your passion. Transportation isn't an area that many people naturally think about as they're getting their degree. Transportation has such diversity of areas that you can move into and I would say, don't count out transportation as a wonderful career option for a variety of growth and career opportunities.
KC: Thank you Carolyn.
Insights from Insight: I hope you enjoyed this interview with Carolyn Flowers. Her remarkable career and the learning that we gain from it is a gift.
Carolyn Flowers Biography
Carolyn Flowers recently joined AECOM as Senior Vice-President-Americas Transit Market Sector Leader with responsibility for client relationships and business development for public transit business lines in the United States and Canada. Prior to that, she served for two years at the Federal Transit Administration as Senior Advisor to the Administrator and, in her last nine months, was the Acting Administrator responsible for grants, compliance and safety of public transit systems in the nation.
In 2009, she was named Chief Executive Officer/Director of Public Transit for the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), where she was responsible for county-wide bus and rail transit planning and management. CATS has a $278 million budget and serves more than 80,000 passengers daily. Flowers worked with the Metropolitan Transit Commission, Mecklenburg County, incorporated towns, and City business units.
Prior to joining the City of Charlotte, Flowers was Chief Operations Officer for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and responsible for managing bus operations and Freeway Service Patrol.
She received a bachelor's degree in History and Political Science and a master's degree in Business Administration from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Management.
Flowers served as co-chair of the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) Reauthorization Task Force. She was a member of APTA's Publication Advisory, Leadership, Legislative, and Awards committees. She also served on the Board of Directors for the North American Transit Services Association (NATSA) and the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) Oversight and Project Selection. She is a member of COMTO and the Women's Transportation Seminar.
In 2007, she was recognized as the Tom Bradley Alumnus of the Year by the UCLA Black Alumni Association. The award is named for the first African-American Mayor of Los Angeles, a champion of public transportation for Los Angeles County. In 2008, she was named Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Chapter of the Women's Transportation Seminar. She also received the Ambassador award for her volunteer work with the American Stroke Association and was given a special recognition award by the Greater Los Angeles African-American Chamber of Commerce. In 2016 she was given a Women's Leadership award by the Black Business Association.
Flowers is a graduate of the 2003 APTA Transportation Leadership Class. She participated in a 2005 international study project for the National Association of Sciences, sponsored by the Eno Foundation for Transportation Studies, as well as the executive development program sponsored by the Eno Center for Transit Leadership. She is a member of the Johnson C. Smith University Board of Visitors, the Foundation for the Carolinas Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fund Board of Directors, the Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) Board and the Women's Intercultural Exchange (WIE) Advisory Council.