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“Boots On The Ground, Flats in the Boardroom” An Author Panel and Roundtable Discussion

By Laurie Carlson, MassDOT and Lindsey Barbee, Greenman-Pedersen Inc.

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What would you do if you had the opportunity to listen and learn from six professional women who have made it to top positions in the transportation industry?  That is exactly what WTS-Boston members and guests had the opportunity to do on September 17, 2015 at the monthly luncheon.  Grace Crunican, co-author of “Boots On The Ground, Flats in the Boardroom”, and General Manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) served as the moderator.  Ms. Crunican approached the microphone and stated, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.” She quickly gave credit to Madeline Albright for this powerful quote.  The filled room of 200+ attendees applauded loudly in full support of this powerful statement.

The panelist of women was comprised of Elizabeth (Liz) Levin, President, Liz Levin & Company and co-author of “Boots On The Ground, Flats in the Boardroom”, Shirley DeLibero, President  DeLibero Transportation Strategies and former CEO Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas (Houston Metro), Mary Jane O’Meara, Associate Vice President, HNTB and Ann Hershfang, Founder of WalkBoston.  All of these women are affectionately referred to in the book as, “The Pioneers” of WTS.

These women shared their stories in the new book, which was recently released in September.  The attendees at the luncheon were able to hear the first-hand advice and wisdom offered by these successful and inspirational women.  Ms. O’Meara explained how WTS members develop relationships and support each other.  She is passionate about supporting other women, to the point that she will take any call made from a WTS member regardless of the circumstance.  As a past President of WTS-Boston and WTS International, Ms. O’Meara also spoke about the mentoring she received that helped her throughout her career.

Shirley DeLibero shared her experience and anecdotes from working as a public employee, and the only woman in her office at the time.  Ms. DeLibero noted that, “politics is tough, and you need to know your place and when to fold” and shared a piece of her mother’s advice, saying that “there is good in everybody. People will help you in mysterious ways.”  Ms. DeLibero shared a story of when she started a new position and her wooden office door was 1-inch thick before vandalism began.  Every day, she would arrive at work and there would be another offensive carving in her door.  Maintenance would come and sand down the door to remove the vandalism, only for the door to be vandalized and sanded again the next day.  By the time she left that office, the door was paper thin.  Ms. DeLibero’s sense of humor shined through her sharing of stories, as most of them ended in laughter throughout the room.

Ann Hershfang shared her experience of being the first woman to be appointed to a transportation board in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and her strong relationships, trust and confidence in the Administration for which she served.  In reflection, she realizes how incredibly fortunate she was to have had such strong political alignment.  In addition to her many years serving the Commonwealth, Ms. Hershfang is known as a passionate advocate.  Her advocacy started with the League of Women Voters, where she was a vocal opponent to planned highways in her South Boston neighborhood.  Twenty-five years ago, she founded WalkBoston, a pedestrian advocacy group which has become a model for national pedestrian advocacy organizations.  One of Ms. Hershfang’s themes was to follow your passion and know your strengths.  She  explained how Ms. Levin is a natural leader, whereas she herself is an advocate who sees a good idea and pursues it. 

There are 18 women that share their stories in the book.  To see five of these professional, successful women on stage like they were having a reunion was a remarkable experience.  They continuously supported, complimented and encouraged each other, knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and are outstanding leaders.   Ms. Hershfang noted the importance of creating WTS-Boston 35 years ago.  Prior to WTS, there were so few women in the industry that women would go to the ladies room to exchange their secrets.

Liz Levin explained that “Some days you get lucky,” referring to one year and eight months ago when she received a phone call from Ms. Crunican which sparked the making of their book, a collection of women’s stories, and major strategic decisions that included the financing of the book. They decided to self-finance and hired a writer and strategist.  They are excited about the publication of the book and eager for WTS members and women in all positions to enjoy it.  The book will provide a look into 18 different management styles and is geared for young women and mid-career women to use as a guide.  Although the book is targeted in the area of transportation, the human stories told transcend beyond the world of transportation, and tell the stories of these 18 women pioneers who were indeed agents of change.

A roundtable discussion followed the presentation and offered a casual and intimate environment for attendees to ask questions and interact with the presenters.  With each guest presenter seated at a table of six to eight WTS-Boston members, the silence in the nearly empty conference hall was quickly replaced with thoughtful questions, personal anecdotes, group discussions, and of course, plenty of laughter.  The time limit for rotation of speakers at each table was quickly met and surpassed as groups engaged in conversation with their guest speaker.  During the discussions, it was apparent that the advice, stories, and wisdom coming from our particular table had a recurring theme - the importance of personal happiness to a fulfilling career.  Topics of discussion were wide-ranging, the value of establishing and using your network, gaining confidence through career growth, dealing with judgement and criticism on the job, transitioning between positions, proving your value, balancing your career and personal life, and tips for a meaningful retirement following a rewarding career. 

A common theme noted through each of the discussions was the importance of re-evaluating personal happiness and satisfaction from your career at each step along the way, and making a change when necessary.  Each of the speakers noted that their career was not the result of a pre-planned road map set in stone.  Their careers evolved through personal growth, often difficult transitions, use of personal and professional networks, and evaluation of happiness along the way.  As they made very clear during the main presentation and roundtable event - a good sense of humor always helps too!

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