Drivers of Success
Women leaders in transportation and their varied paths to chief executive positions
A mountain’s peak is rarely reached by a straight climb. There are many different paths that lead to the top. With perseverance, skill and the will to succeed, great heights await the indomitable individual, regardless of gender, race or creed.
The women leaders of the AAMVA community exemplify that indomitable spirit. Where the path forward was uncharted, they blazed their own trail. And while some are the first to reach that summit in their respective jurisdictions, they all agree they have a responsibility not to be the last.
Though each woman’s journey is unique, the common theme is just that: there is no prescriptive career path to success. Ambition is not the key ingredient, but rather, passion. To love the work, and to be the best person for the position—that’s ultimately how the divergent career paths of these women all led to the same place: the pinnacle of the profession.
YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL
As the first person of color to become director of the Georgia Motor Vehicles Division, Georgia Steele is also one of the youngest directors in the country. She was born and raised in Jamaica, W.I., is a single mother, a graduate of AAMVA’s Leadership Academy and recently completed a doctoral degree in organizational change and leadership from the University of Southern California.
“One thing I’ve learned, you can have it all as a woman,” Director Steele says. “It just depends what ‘all’ is for you, defining your own version of success, and then putting in the work.”
From the outset of her career as a New York City 311 call center operator, Director Steele fell in love with public service and helping others. It was during this time that she had her son. Upon return from maternity leave, a member of the NYC 311 leadership team denied her request for some flexibility in her work schedule to spend more time with her newborn.
“I was really taken aback. I thought about it. I’m not bound to that one organization. I want to serve and I want to be in public service, but [NYC 311] was not the only agency where I could do that. So I left there to work for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission [TLC] and it literally opened up all these doors,” Director Steele says.
At the TLC, she found a supportive environment where her leadership qualities were recognized and valued. She received training and was promoted several times, setting her on a path toward her eventual position as Georgia motor vehicles division director.
A NATURAL WOMAN
Leslie S. Richards, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, is the first woman to serve in the role. Her journey began at the Environmental Protection Agency, followed by positions in city planning and economic development, then a stint in the private sector prior to an eight-year departure from the workforce to raise her children. She returned to work on a part-time basis with an environmental engineering firm, where she was first exposed to the world of transportation.
At the same time, she was heavily involved in her community, serving on the township planning commission. That work compelled her to run for Montgomery County Commissioner. After winning that election, she came to the attention of Tom Wolf, who would eventually become governor of Pennsylvania and appoint her to his cabinet.
“I wasn’t being strategic in any way,” Secretary Richards says. “I just kept doing things that felt right and also that were right for the balance I wanted between my family and my profession.”
Her career path through the world of politics has brought her into many meeting rooms where she is the only woman present. “After making many mistakes trying to mimic the men and talk in the way they spoke to each other, I realized that I’m most effective when I use a voice that comes natural to me,” Secretary Richards says. “I don’t have to yell. I don’t have to give ultimatums. Using language that’s comfortable to me, I can show them my passion and that I can get things done.”
LIVE YOUR VALUES
As a West Point graduate from the first class to include women, Sue Fulton, Chief Administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, says gender and sexuality have been important issues throughout her career.
“I left the Army as an officer after five and a half years because I had come to terms with my sexuality—I’m a lesbian—and I knew that wasn’t compatible long-term with military policies,” Chief Fulton says. “They were going to kick me out at some point and I wasn’t willing to continue to lie about who I was.”
She spent the next 25 years in brand management at Fortune 500 companies, but maintained her connection with West Point as a mentor to cadets and junior officers. After the election of President Barack Obama, Chief Fulton was involved with the formation of the first West Point LGBT alumni group and became active in efforts to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as well as the transgender ban.
Her work to repeal these military policies raised her profile and that’s how she met Phil Murphy, who would later become governor of New Jersey. When he was filling out his cabinet, he wanted a military veteran and invited Chief Fulton to join his team.
“My career path has been a series of surprises and unexpected opportunities that I’ve been able to pursue, she says. “I think people worry way too much about what’s going to advance their career. Focus on what you care about and what you’re good at. Live your values.”
Chrissy Nizer, Administrator of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, comes from a public policy background, working in the state legislature and then the local office of the Department of Homeland Security. One of her main tasks as the Maryland DHS liaison was to bring together many state agencies to coordinate for natural and man-made disasters.
“The environment was male-dominated with representatives from the military and law enforcement,” Administrator Nizer says. “It was not easy, coming into a new position, in a newly created office, and I was younger than most of my colleagues.”
One of the men told her on day one he was going to take her job. “In the end, he was no longer there, but I was through hard work, keeping at it and doing the right things,” she says.
Reflecting on her career and the challenges she overcame, she shares insight on her sustained success: “How you present yourself and the ability to make people feel comfortable in different environments encourages a willingness to follow you as a leader.”
Texas Department of Motor Vehicles Executive Director Whitney Brewster knew as a child she wanted to work in public service. From her early career as a mental health counselor working with at-risk young women, to the Alaska legislature and then the DMV, she has lived that childhood dream every day of her adult life.
When she moved from Texas to Alaska, her parents thought she was crazy, she says. They feared they had done something wrong. On the contrary, they had instilled in their daughter the confidence to go anywhere and try anything.
“I just felt the need to go out and explore,” Director Brewster says. “And what I learned is that wherever I go, I’ll be okay. I will flourish.”
When she is approached by women and asked how she managed to achieve her success, it catches her off-guard, she says. “I’ve just been fearless because my mom impressed upon me that you can do anything.” And she has spent her career making that belief a reality.
THE ART OF COMPROMISE
Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles Administrator Kristina Boardman, whose parents were both educators, grew up in a household dedicated to public service. After a decade working in the Wisconsin State Assembly, she was drawn to the DMV as a place to “dig in and make a difference” with an agency that serviced everyone.
During her time in the legislature, she says, “I set myself up as someone willing to talk through the issues and find solutions on those topics that we all cared about. I appreciate the art of compromise.”
Her work in the legislature as the clerk for the transportation committee is what led to her interest in the DMV. “Transportation is a topic that touches everyone. I really appreciate having a direct impact on the service that is provided to customers every day and finding ways to reinvent DMV business so that we can meet our customers’ needs in a more innovative way.”
EVERYTHING IS A RELATIONSHIP
Rhonda Lahm, Director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles and AAMVA Chair of the Board, became a leader in transportation safety by way of law enforcement. Her first job out of college was at an adult male correctional institution, after which she joined the state patrol and achieved the rank of major.
“All throughout my career, I’ve been in the role of the minority,” Director Lahm says. “Even in my current position in the governor’s cabinet, I’m one of two females.”
As the first female trooper in west-central Nebraska, Director Lahm confronted gender bias on a routine basis from her fellow troopers and from the general public. “There were officers who, when I was introduced, would not even shake my hand,” she says. But strides have been made since then and no one would be surprised to see a female trooper now, she says.
This April, Director Lahm will celebrate her 40th year in state government. “I’ve learned throughout the years the most important thing is relationships. At every level you are going to have a relationship. You can either let it happen by chance or you can actively take steps to make it what you want it. If I wrote a book, the title would be ‘Everything in Life is a Relationship.’”
SENSE AND SENSIBILITIES
For 35 years, AAMVA President and CEO Anne Ferro has dedicated herself to public service and promoting workplace diversity. She was the first woman administrator of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, the first woman to lead the Maryland Motor Truck Association, and was appointed by President Obama to a five-year term as Administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Reflecting back on her experiences, Ferro identifies the character traits that have led to her success: “An undying curiosity, a willingness to take on a hard job, and a passion for helping others.”
“When you have those kinds of sensibilities, looking back, I can see that it cuts through the pressure and sometimes the intimidation of being in a male-dominated environment,” Ferro says. “Certainly 35 years ago, whether it was the Peace Corps or government or in the trucking industry, there weren’t many, if any, women in the room.”
For any organization, Ferro believes diversity is essential. “Getting all voices to the table, ensuring that everybody’s voice counts and that each idea and each individual is respected, that’s at the heart of diversity. By enriching that environment, we achieve a better sense of community and a better sense of trust. And it energizes everybody to do more work and harder work and better work by helping each other.”
FROM THE NECK UP
Major Melissa Zebley is a Delaware State Police operations officer who oversees nearly 300 troopers, including the statewide traffic division. She is the first woman in the state’s history to serve in this capacity.
“There are so many different skill sets required to do this job effectively, but a lot of it is from the neck up—your mental discipline and your ability to talk to people and relate to them.”
She reports to Colonel Nathaniel McQueen, Jr., the first African-American appointed to the superintendent position. “At some point maybe there are no more ‘firsts’ to be achieved, but over the course of time it will happen.”
IT’S OKAY TO ASK
Director of the Iowa Motor Vehicle Division Melissa Spiegel began her career with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“There were a variety of people that came from different places that were all required to work together for one common mission. I really enjoyed that aspect of working for FEMA and I think that’s what really sparked my interest and my commitment to public service.”
A graduate of AAMVA’s leadership academy, Spiegel joined the Iowa Department of Transportation in 2010 and quickly moved through the ranks to the position of director in 2017.
“When I first came into leadership, I thought I had to have all of the right answers so I could prove myself. I’ve learned that it’s okay if I don’t know all of the answers and instead to ask. Building relationships and making connections with people is actually more important in the long run.”
As a senior business analyst with the fraud prevention business integrity office of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Laura Barkley-McKeeman is entering her 30th year in public service.
She began her career in government through an affirmative action hire to the Ontario Provincial Police as a special constable, and was the only woman in her graduating class from the police academy.
“I think you have to look in unusual places to find mentors. It isn’t always somebody that’s a higher up giving sage advice, it’s quite often somebody who’s just willing to speak their truth about what they see in you and give you constructive criticism.”
“I’ve always been drawn to really authentic people who know who they are, and I’ve been fortunate over the years to have been surrounded by some really fabulous authentic women.”
SEE IT TO BE IT
While each of these leaders acknowledge the many people who helped them achieve their success—mentors, networks of colleagues, professional organizations and the support of family—they each recognize their responsibility to be the standard-bearers of a new era.
“I take the role very seriously,” Secretary Richards says. “I strongly believe you have to see it to be it. Whenever I speak at an event, often it’s the first time [the audience] has seen a female speak with this title in this role. And so I try to be at as many events as I can.”
“I think it’s imperative to a woman’s success in the workplace to find someone she can bounce ideas off of and talk to when things aren’t so clear, when you haven’t had the experience,” Director Brewster says.
She visits the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas regularly to speak with students. “Being able to give whatever I can in terms of information and knowledge as a woman executive, but also hearing their questions and their thoughts, is very energizing,” Director Brewster says.
“My advice to young people—because a lot of them are not sure where they want to go with their career—you don’t have to know on day one,” Administrator Nizer says. “My career path is a testament to that. Having a wide variety of experiences prepares you [for leadership]. You need to be able to pull from all different kinds of skill sets in order to be successful.”
Chief Fulton, like many military women in her network, she says, did not have a formal mentor. “For me, my advancement has been less about having a senior person who advocated for me or advised me. It’s the network of people I’ve come to know over the years who have really provided the support and insight that’s been the most useful to me.”
The value of mentorship has led Wisconsin to formalize a program that pairs new supervisors with senior advisors who are not in their direct chain of command to give them support without risk of judgment. Administrator Boardman explains, “Everyone wants you to succeed in your job. Mentoring is a great approach.”
Wisconsin also has a leadership development program. “We have a whole curriculum put together to grow our employees,” Administrator Boardman says. “I love to promote from within. People spend so much time learning the business, making that investment in us as an employer. I want to invest back in them as employees.”
“I’ve had employees tell me I’m a mentor to them and it’s very humbling,” says Director Lahm. “I feel I have a responsibility to provide information and knowledge and pass it along, pay it forward like others did for me.”
“Never hesitate to ask someone you admire for a little of their time,” Ferro says. “They may take you under their wing. For women, I think we just need to keep making our connections. There’s a lot of power when women help each other with problem solving, relationship development, professional growth. We need to embrace it and reach out.”