Ackemann: A vacuum in Bay Area transit leadership?
A VTA Blue Line train travels through downtown San Jose. File photo.

Leadership is a quality we aspire to and place high value on as a society and yet often fail to meaningfully define. But the Bay Area is grappling with this question on multiple fronts in our civic lives.

VTA is currently in the midst of the vaunted “nationwide” search to replace former CEO Nuria Fernandez who recently took a position in the Biden-Harris Administration. Some Santa Clara County officials suggested it could take months to find the right person to lead VTA’s complex and growing mix of responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the CEO who oversaw both SamTrans and Caltrain in San Mateo County also recently retired. According to San Mateo County Transit District Board Chair and Caltrain Board Member Charles Stone, there are no plans to replace the outgoing CEO in the immediate future.

“What would the job description say?” Stone responded when asked what the plans are for replacing former CEO Jim Hartnett.

The board chair was referring to the ongoing pressure to spin Caltrain off into a separate organization. When the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain, took over the service in the 1990’s, it selected the San Mateo County Transit District as the administrative body that would operate it.

Until the members of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board can resolve the question of Caltrain’s future, it’s present will also remain in limbo.

“We don’t know what skill set the next San Mateo County Transit District leader will need because we don’t know whether they will be running a bus agency or an organization that includes rail too,” Stone added, explaining the difficulty of identifying new leadership under these circumstances. For the foreseeable future, SamTrans and Caltrain will be led by interim-CEOs who report to their separate boards.

While the Peninsula transit agencies grapple with those questions, San Jose is also engaged in the task of rethinking its own leadership model. After an initial proposal that would have extended Mayor Sam Liccardo’s term by two years and given him more power over the selection of the city’s department heads failed to receive enough support, the council appointed a commission to consider the question.

San Jose operates under a city manager model, in which the elected officials appoint someone with a background in public administration to operate the city and oversee department heads on their behalf. Larger cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, tend to operate with a strong mayor who holds more control over city administration.

Each of these organizations seem to be struggling not just with the challenge of finding the next best person to lead it, but the existential question of what they should look like in their next iterations.

Organizational identity politics

The Reagan Administration swept in an era of government ‘self-loathing.’ Remember his famous line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Contrast that with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s more expansive view of government, “The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power…. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.”

Today’s locally elected politicians are entrusted with the responsibility of selecting the leaders of our civic institutions. Whether they fall into a political camp that hews more closely to a Reagan view of the world or an FDR view of the world can influence the type of leader they believe will best represent their community.

But even in the Bay Area’s moderate political climate, a desire to operate government agencies “more like a business” is pervasive. In 2007, VTA’s then CEO Michael Burns argued just that in a Silicon Valley Business Journal editorial. The Reagan era mindset has in some ways supplanted the belief that government has a purpose to serve in people’s lives and has affected the way we view the role of city administrator or transit agency CEO.

The talent pipeline

Like most chamber organizations, Silicon Valley invests in developing its own leaders through Leadership San Jose—a program offered through the Silicon Valley Organization that helps bring civic, business and nonprofit executives together to foster relationships. There’s a similar leadership development program offered through the chamber in San Mateo County and likely in communities across the country.

Most leadership development programs are built around a set of executive “core competencies” developed in the 1990’s. These identify five categories of leadership skills that can be honed through programs like the Lean Six Sigma model first trademarked in 1993.

In the nearly three decades since, the role of a public sector leader has changed, and the way we view developing that talent pipeline should be reevaluated too.

The Public Sector Leadership Model (PSL) offers an updated view of the soft skills necessary to be an effective leader. They emphasize the development of empathy through building relationships and self-awareness. Empathy hasn’t been a highly prized skill in our society, and it shows.

The organization behind the PSL model argues that with nearly 50% of public sector leaders likely to retire in the next decade, creating the right talent pipeline will be critical. Nowhere is that truer than in the Bay Area where we are already looking for our next generation of transit leaders.

Those leaders will be taking the reins at a time when trust in government is low, tensions between public sector employees and management are high and communities are exhausted by the pandemic and its economic effects. Centering empathy for the people they employ and the people they serve will play an essential role in guiding these organizations through a period of great transformation. Whether our leaders are effective in the coming years may very well be determined by whether they are capable of building trust with the communities they are selected to lead.

Indeed, the next generation may need to operate government less like a business, centering success around the humanity of the people it serves rather than the efficiency of their organizational output.

San José Spotlight columnist Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

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