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The Secrets of Six Top Transportation Teams

RENO, Nev. – The six winners of Transfinder’s inaugural Top Transportation Teams award shared their teambuilding secrets and success stories at STN EXPO Reno.

Antonio Civitella, Transfinder president and CEO, explained during the Monday lunchtime session that the project entailed asking school districts across North America to anonymously rank their transportation teams on culture, leadership and benefits.

“Hear what your employees are saying. That’s how you improve,” he declared. The number one complaint, he said, was not wages but lack of communication and insufficient regard for employee desires and feedback.

The Top Transportation Teams winners came from districts in a variety of sizes. The winners in the over 100 employees category were Franklin Township Community School Corporation in Indiana, Klein Independent School District in Texas, and Garland Independent School District in Texas.

The winners in the 100 or fewer employees category were Marshall Public Schools in Michigan, Pembroke Central School District in New York, and South Lewis Central School District in New York.

One Word to Describe Your Team

Transportation Supervisor Andrew Krokowski of South Lewis CSD celebrated the “unique” characteristics and background of his team members and how they cooperated for smooth operations.

Donna Hackett, transportation supervisor for Pembroke CSD, called hers a “cohesive” team that embraces change and growth.

Monique Bryant, transportation director at Marshall Public Schools, cited great improvement in her now “motivated,” family-like team.

Klein ISD’s Director of Transportation John Fergerson chose “compassion” to describe a core value of his team for both fellow staff and student riders. “When you treat people that way, you get good results,” he said.

AnnaMarie Banner, director of transportation for Garland ISD, expressed pride in her “well-oiled machine,” where people motivate each other.

Todd Livesay, director of transportation from Franklin Township Community, praised his focused team that he said was “dedicated” to the mission of taking students safely to and from school.

What Makes You Special

Fergerson spoke of how a love of children is baked into his hiring questions in order to attract the right kind of person. “Our people are dependable, they show up for our students,” he shared. Livesay agreed that loving kids matters more than any standard resume qualifications in his hiring process.

Bryant, Banner and Krokowski expressed gratitude for the way their staff members help each other out. Banner said she appreciates listening to drivers communicate and volunteer help to each other over the radio.

Like many in the room, Hackett didn’t seek out a career in transportation, but she advocates for good wages and benefits for the people who do one of the most important jobs in the world every day. “We believe we are the best transportation department in the state of New York,” she declared. Her district did indeed score number one in the Transfinder survey.

Culture Matters

Several panelists acknowledged that work had to be done when they initially joined their team.

Fergerson emphasized that transportation managers must lead with a good attitude and provide the support that employees need to feel wanted.

Banner said leaders should be looking for ways to show employees “we want you to be here and we’re happy you are.”

The support from district administration is a huge part of the positive atmosphere, support and pride that Livesay wants to foster at his district.

“It’s amazing what food and fellowship does,” Livesay quipped. Civitella agreed that even when people may not agree, gatherings with food foster closeness through casual communication. Krokowski said team meals and an open-door policy have helped him foster an open atmosphere.

Including mechanics, drivers and monitors in discussions and decision making shows them they’re valued team members and gives her good insights, Hackett said. “They’re the experts.”

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Spilling Secrets

Civitella questioned the “low-hanging fruit” that panelists identified as small steps they took to build good workplace culture.

While drivers have much on their plates, Bryant takes time to communicate with drivers via a weekly email and keep them motivated. Likewise, Banner sends messages throughout the week to create touchpoints and open conversations with her team members. “They feel empowered and comfortable to come to me and say, ‘this is what we need,’” she said.

“Don’t be afraid to receive constructive criticism,” Krokowski added. He said that a big reason that he participated in the Transfinder project was to get feedback he could use for improvement.

Having an open-door policy and sending regular informative messages help Livesay keep all his employees on the same page. An employee of the month program and summer cookouts keep things fun.

Partnerships, crowdsourcing and self-care are crucial to building the leader as a person, Hackett noted. “You have to take care of you,” she said. “If you’re not strong, your department is not going to be strong. If you’re strong, you’re going to pass that on to your people as well.”

As part of her open-door policy, Bryant stressed listening to learn, not to respond. She also handles student discipline to help out and support drivers.

Klein ISD uniform shirts used to be black. Fergerson shared that his staff wanted to wear different colors, so he let them. “If it’s not immoral, unethical or illegal, why not?” he asked. He granted his team permission to recognize someone they saw doing something good and periodically draw a name for a prize. “Empower your people,” he underscored.

Learning Opportunities

Not everything is a hole-in-one. Livesay related a failed timeclock change as a lesson in implementing changes slowly and patiently, not all at once. Krokowski said he once tried to change the field trip roster process but immediately learned from his staff the change wasn’t what they wanted. He added that it’s good to try new things but, more importantly, admit it if they fail.

“You can come up with all these ideas and they may work for you, but they may not work for me,” said Hackett, stressing the importance of listening to one’s own team and their unique needs when bringing ideas back from conferences or other districts.

Trial and error have helped Bryant determine which changes to implement. Banner added that sharing the reasoning behind a decision is important.

A large district, Klein ISD implemented student ridership tracking that was not initially well received. It took two years, but Fergerson reported that sticking with it has helped the district keep track of all its students. “Don’t be afraid to fail forward,” he said.

Leadership Takeaways

“Culture starts at the top,” Civitella declared.

Krokowski said he seeks personal and professional development for skill building. Fergerson’s military background, commitment to setting a professional example, and willingness to grow are core parts of him.

With a “buck stops here” attitude, Hackett said she can both easily support drivers in their decisions and call them out when needed.

Bryant said a caring heart and optimism is what keeps her going back every day, while Banner revealed that leadership to her is empowering her people and helping them achieve their goals.

Livesay recognized the need for professional development for both him and his staff. “Raise your bar. Once things are good enough, find out how to make them better,” he encouraged.

“Leadership is a significant responsibility,” Civitella summed up, as a team will mimic their leader.

Photos by Philicia Endelman.

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