Management

50 top traits of great transportation directors

Thomas McMahon
Posted on October 19, 2012
Photo of John Clements of Kings Canyon USD, shot by Shinn Photography

Photo of John Clements of Kings Canyon USD, shot by Shinn Photography

1. Great Communication Skills
Transportation directors need to be able to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people: employees, parents, superintendents, principals, school board members, etc.

“I’ve always found that the ability to communicate with people ... is by far the most important trait a transportation director can have,” says Ron Latko of Mesa (Ariz.) Unified School District (USD) #4.

David Pace of Virginia Beach (Va.) City Public Schools calls communication “the glue that holds all other traits together.”

Lennie Goff of Regional School Unit 18 in Oakland, Maine, adds that being a great communicator isn’t just talking ability but also being “someone who knows how to listen, when to listen and how to process information.”

Nicole Portee of Denver Public Schools notes that talking face to face “displays a level of integrity about you as a person and a leader.”

2. Knowledge
Great directors possess a bevy of knowledge about school transportation regulations, best practices, district policies and more.

“You must know the responsibilities, duties and laws,” says Joyce Kent of East Feliciana Parish Schools in Clinton, La. Without that, “you will not be successful as a supervisor.”

Knowing how to do a wide range of tasks is also important.

“A great director is someone that has driven a bus, turned wrenches, swept floors, helped a student learn to read and built relationships over a period of time,” says Jeff Harris of Guilford County (N.C.) Schools.

3. Focus on Safety
Although safety can be tied to many of the other traits on this list, it should still be noted on its own that transportation directors must be safety focused.

Considering the precious cargo that rides school buses every day, Bobbie Engelhardt of Marion County (Fla.) Public Schools calls safety “the first and foremost essential tool.”

“I believe the No. 1 trait is a genuine concern for the safety of students,” adds Nancy Groom-Bullard of Akron (Colo.) School District R-1. “We do this for the kids. We do this job to keep them safe, warm and dry.”

4. Dedication
Great transportation directors are clearly committed to what they do.

“It doesn’t seem to be a job for great directors, but almost a way of life that they really enjoy,” says Ben Kimbler of Sierra USD in Tollhouse, Calif.

“I think that is why you see great directors that have been in the industry 30 to 40 years or more. That is long-term dedication.”

5. Integration Skills
A successful transportation director has to be a skilled integrator of a variety of areas, such as bus operations, safety and training, and recruiting and retention.

Edward Bishop of Prince William County (Va.) Public Schools says that “integration requires a leader or director that understands the interrelationships of several diverse functions ... [and] how all of them work together to accomplish a common mission.”

6. Flexibility
Directors of transportation must be willing to adapt to some extent to meet various needs.

The steady flow of demands from different stakeholders “requires a certain amount of finesse, patience and flexibility to maintain positive and supportive relationships while maintaining a handle on adherence to policies and regulations,” Pace says.

7. Focus on Students
Great transportation directors always have the students’ best interests in mind.

Pete Meslin of Newport-Mesa USD in Costa Mesa, Calif., says that directors must build and maintain an operation that is focused on the students.

“Ultimately, we are in the student education business,” he says. “We should be filtering everything we do through the core values of “Is this right for students?”

8. Attention to Detail
In this line of work, there’s no room for oversights. Accordingly, directors of transportation have to be keenly attentive to details.

“The smallest mistake, such as failing to train drivers to count students as they depart from the bus, can lead to the serious injury or death of a student,” says Linda Thompson of the Reorganized R-7 School District in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

9. Problem-Solving Skills
At any transportation department, problems will arise, and the director must be equipped to solve them.

Frank Giordano of Clark County (Nev.) School District names just a few of the issues that can come up: a server failure, a parts supplier being back-ordered, the phone system going down, inclement weather, road construction — and the list goes on.

“All these things fall back on you to solve the issue, and solve it quickly, as the kids must get to school,” Giordano says.

10. Clarity
Great transportation directors outline a clear path for their employees.

“So many times, we spend a lot of energy in things that lead us away from the direction the district is going,” says Jim Beekman of Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools. “Employees want to know that there is a mission, a purpose for what they do and how they do it, and that at the end of the day, they have made a positive contribution in the life of a kid.”

Accordingly, the director has to align the transportation department “from the front-line employee all the way up to the district’s mission,” Beekman says.

11. Acts on Feedback
Feedback isn’t always pleasant, but great directors seek it out from many sources: staff, bosses, parents, administrators — even students.

Meslin says that if the feedback is positive, directors should share it with those who are responsible. If the feedback is negative, they should “get to work revising processes and procedures to fix things.”

12. Responsibility
A successful director sees the entire transportation operation as his or her personal responsibility.

“Every success is yours, and every failure is yours,” says Jack Coxen of Brewster (N.Y.) Central School District (CSD). “One very important proviso: Success is never an island, and failure almost always is. Failure among the staff requires the manager’s participation to correct for tomorrow.”

13. Forward Thinking
Transportation directors should always be on the lookout for new technology, new ideas and new sources of funding.

Carol Stamper of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools points to the value in seeking “technology solutions to enhance customer service and formulate data-driven decisions for continual improvement.”

John Clements of Kings Canyon USD in Reedley, Calif., makes great efforts to fund new school buses through many clean-air sources.

“Be forward thinking,” he suggests. “Look outside the box.”

14. Has a Servant’s Heart
Should a director serve?

Beekman says that having a servant’s heart is one of the hardest concepts that managers have to grasp.

“It is the notion that in order for my employees to excel in the path that has been laid out for them, it is my responsibility to see to their needs,” he says. “Our drivers need to have buses that don’t break down, route sheets that are accurate, school administrators that are responsive to discipline and a manager that will make their issue a priority to resolve.”

The desire to serve should also apply to the students, parents and faculty.

“I want to give everyone the best service that I can and do it with a smile on my face,” says Brent Childers of Highland Park Independent School District (ISD) in Amarillo, Texas.

15. Keeps Learning
Great transportation directors don’t get to a point where they think they know it all — they keep striving to learn more. That could mean learning from others in the district, taking advantage of the resources of industry associations or pursuing further academic opportunities.

16. Eye for Talent
Top-notch directors need a top-notch staff, and that means making the right calls in hiring and promotions.

John Franklin of Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools says that the “ability to assess talent and skills sets, and then grow and develop leaders, is essential. Dedicated professionals are now retiring from the pupil transportation industry, and we directors must be able to shape the next generation of leaders.”

Jackie Fields of Belton (Texas) ISD says that a successful director needs “the ability to surround yourself with a great team. ... The team is the success.”

Feisal Jahay of Hesston (Kan.) USD 460 specifies that hiring positive team players is key, and “if they do not love the kids or driving a bus, do not hire them.”

17. Leadership
Of course, great leadership is essential to being a great transportation director. But how is leadership defined? It’s likely an amalgam of traits.

“Leadership in this sense is a broad term to encompass integrity, commitment to your people and your mission, and the ability to know your stuff, your people and yourself,” says Grant Reppert of Gwinnett County Public Schools in Lawrenceville, Ga. “This is why people are willing to trust and follow the direction and guidance you provide.”

Adds Brian Weisinger of Spring ISD in Houston: “You must stand up for what you believe, in all dealings. This is true leadership.”

18. to 20. The Three Cs
Paul Balon of Douglas County (Colo.) School District says that great transportation directors must have the three Cs of leadership:

•    Compassion to listen to others
•    Confidence to make a tough decision and know it is right for the students and stakeholders.
•    Courage and ability to stand alone once the decision is made — and to admit when you make a wrong decision.

21. Heart
Directors of transportation need a heart for the job and for people.
Harris says that directors must consider the impact that their decisions will have on others.

“Often, decisions with negative impacts on people are made for the good of the budget,” he says. “A director with heart considers how to involve or assist those the decision will adversely affect before implementing the change.”

22. Thick Skin
The head of a school transportation department is bound to have some harsh words thrown his or her way. It’s important to have thick skin and not take it personally.

Gary Martin of St. Charles Parish Public Schools in Luling, La., points to an incident in which a longtime friend’s daughter was starting kindergarten.

“This was the first year this kindergarten center had their own buses, so we had some routing concerns to work through the first week,” Martin says. “Well, the bus with the most concerns was her daughter’s bus.”

He says that his friend went “ballistic” on him and the department, calling multiple times and sending e-mails to his supervisor and the principals.

Martin notes that one of the principals commiserated with him and assured him that they were happy with the transportation service.

“I wanted to get angry at her [the friend] but then realized that she is like any other kindergarten parent,” Martin says. “Kindergarten parents are filled with protective instincts and separation anxiety; it takes time to gain their trust.”

23. Delegates Wisely
The “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” mindset doesn’t work for transportation operations.

Pam McDonald of Orange (Calif.) USD stresses the importance of knowing “how to delegate and follow through.”

Reppert notes that it is the driver of the buses who will determine success on a daily basis.

“So you have to delegate the decision-making authority to those best positioned to execute it,” he says. “With that has to come the training on how to use it.”

24. Negotiation Skills
Jim Gannon of Fremont (Calif.) USD says that transportation directors must understand interest-based negotiations. A successful director “uses those tools not just in the labor arena, but also in IEP meetings and in mitigation of complaints on a daily basis.”

25. Dependability
Because so many stakeholders rely on the director of transportation, dependability is a must.

Patrick Kneib of Kansas City (Mo.) Public Schools says that this trait is needed “to properly mitigate risk associated with student transportation and also address transportation system issues, incidents and accidents.”

The nonstop nature of the director position also demands dependability.

“The job these days, for most larger districts, is nearly a 365/24/7 undertaking with year-round special-education programs, evening and weekend field trips, and daily late activities,” Kneib says.

26. Willingness to Get Down in the Trenches
Some of the best transportation directors can often be seen out of the office, driving or riding a bus, shoveling snow, meeting with a parent at a bus stop, etc.

“I think the most important trait that a director can possess is the willingness to get down in the trenches with the employees,” says Julie Murphy of Seminole County (Fla.) Public Schools. “[Being] willing to ride the bus to get a feel for the day-to-day problems the drivers face is one of the best things the director can do to gain the respect of the employees.”

27. Business Acumen
Transportation directors need good business skills, not just in a fiscal sense, but also in terms of relationships.

In addition to having clear business goals, Gannon says, a successful director “can ferret out new revenue streams and grant opportunities” and “builds strong, supportive relationships with the education side of the organization and politically with board members and bargaining groups.”

28. Embraces Challenges
Great transportation directors take on the myriad challenges of the job with gusto.

“Our positions demand so much each day, and that is what makes our work so much fun,” says Keith Paulson of Anoka-Hennepin School District #11 in Anoka, Minn.

Debbie Rike of Shelby County (Tenn.) Schools adds that embracing challenges is vital because “every single day brings new challenges in the current cost-cutting economy.”

29. “Big Picture” Thinking
Great transportation directors have a broad understanding of the school district and its mission.

“Many transportation directors who do not live up to their potential fall short because they only see through their department’s straw,” Kneib says. “Many factors must be taken into consideration when executing a safe, timely and efficient transportation system,” such as bell-time tiering, schools’ attendance boundaries and district emergency management procedures.

30. Determination
Paulson says that great transportation directors are determined in many ways, such as: Determined to have their department ready for what is known and for the unknown. Determined to provide the best for their customers. And determined to help wherever they can, whenever they can.

31. Networking Capability
In pupil transportation, networking with colleagues and getting involved in industry associations can be instrumental in success.

“The ability to verify and/or validate thoughts and decisions amongst your peers is paramount,” says Joe Hough of Buncombe County (N.C.) Schools.

32. and 33. Follow-Up and Follow-Through
To earn the trust and support of parents, administrators and employees, transportation directors must be consistent in following up with them and following through on what they need.

“Customers internal and external want to be sure you will take the time to help resolve their concerns,” Portee says.

34. Accessibility
Many great transportation leaders have an open-door policy.

“If a driver has a problem no matter how big or small you need to be available,” says Colleen Murphy of Austintown (Ohio) Local Schools. “This is very hard to do some days, but [when] you are always there to help and support them, they will do the same for you.”

35. Gets the Facts
Michael Martello of Little Rock (Ark.) School District says that an exceptional transportation director is nonjudgmental until he or she has all of the facts, which should be gathered unemotionally.

“All those who work for you should know that you are really interested in the facts,” Martello says. “Basically, be a calm observer until you have gathered all sides of the story.”

36. Organization
Transportation directors should be organized in where things are and what they need to accomplish on a given day.

“A transportation director must be able to organize their time and prioritize their tasking,” says Michael Hush of Cherry Creek Schools in Greenwood Village, Colo. “They have to know how to say, ‘This has to wait,’ and use every tool available to get back to the task when they can.”

“Everything has its place, and either at the beginning or end of each day ... you need to straighten up the piles and put what you can away,” Colleen Murphy says. “We deal with so many items that are time- and safety-sensitive that not keeping good records will destroy your entire operation.”

37. Empowers Employees
It’s important that school bus drivers and other employees feel that they have a say and that they are contributing to the district’s mission.

“Let the drivers be involved in the decisions that affect them,” suggests Darryl Maas of North East (Pa.) School District.

Bill Wagner of Gadsden Elementary School District in San Luis, Ariz., describes the concept as “people empowerment.”

“As a department that is established upon the goal of and dedicated to student accomplishment, I have developed a sense of pride in our drivers by instilling in them the idea that they are part of the big picture,” Wagner says. “I empower these drivers to express their ideas, concerns and desires that may have an impact our operation.”

38. Calm Demeanor
Great transportation directors keep their cool.

“The ability to remain calm when providing the rationale for not being able to meet a request is critical,” Hough says. “The well-thought-out response with policy and/or law references will keep the most uncomfortable situation from becoming unbearable.”

39. Patience
Along with staying calm, directors need patience for when things don’t go as planned or when dealing with difficult people.

“We must be patient and understanding of the needs of our customers,” says Gerald Rineer of Lower Merion School District in Ardmore, Pa.

Ken Phillips of Bay District Schools in Panama City, Fla., says that patience is an essential trait because “the job as transportation director will in fact test your tolerance and resolve.”

40. Fairness
Employees and customers need to know that the director of transportation will treat them fairly.

“The key is to not show anyone preference over another, whether it be a parent, student or employee,” says Charles Stroker of Van-Far School District in Vandalia, Mo.

“Drivers are watching the way we respond to certain situations, and they need to know there is no favoritism,” adds Fred Sindorf of Skokie (Ill.) School District 68.

41. Gives Credit
Gary Thomsen of Evergreen Public Schools says that “when employees feel appreciated and recognized, everything else will fall into place.” He recommends developing employee recognition programs, such as safety and attendance awards.

Adds Kevin Snowden of Shelby County (Ala.) Schools: “Always use praise, and [give] credit to whom credit is due.”

42. Decisiveness
Great transportation directors make decisions for the betterment of the department without reservations, Phillips says.

Michael Dallessandro of Niagara Wheatfield CSD in Niagara Falls, N.Y., notes that the ability to make decisions quickly is vital in some cases.

“Often a decision has to be made, and there is not much time to do it since our buses are often ‘moving’ while they are awaiting an answer,” Dallessandro says.

43. Visibility
Transportation directors need to be seen. One effective way to do this, Thomsen says, is to “greet your employees every morning if at all possible.”

Jeff Walker of Litchfield Elementary School District #79 in Litchfield Park, Ariz., adds that “being visible and accessible to your staff can make or break your department. When the drivers see the director out on the road and in school loading zones observing, they are much more apt to follow the safety rules.”  

44. Creativity
In times when the demand for student transportation is increasing while resources are shrinking, successful directors get creative.

“Transportation directors must be able to creatively determine ways to cut costs, improve efficiency and increase training effectiveness with limited budgets,” says Bryan Huber of Rockingham County (Va.) Schools.

45. Consistency
Don Ross of the School District of Manatee County (Fla.) says that whatever the topic or challenge, a great director “always is consistent with the direction of the department.”

46. Positivity
Great transportation leaders set a positive tone for their department, says Marie Espinoza of San Bernardino (Calif.) City USD.

Adds Tony Briscoe of Moorpark (Calif.) USD: “If you are positive and professional, your employees and your facility will be positive and professional.”

47. Sense of Direction
Directors must be strong with direction — in the geographical sense.

“You must have a knack for understanding maps and a good sense of direction,” says Todd Scott of Beavercreek (Ohio) City Schools. “You will be asked to save fuel, time, and make routes that flow and are seemingly effortless.”

48. Honesty
Andy Martin of School District U-46 in Elgin, Ill., says that honesty “builds and maintains trust with the communities, staff, fellow administrators throughout the organization and industry colleagues.”

Michele Drorbaugh of Seattle Public Schools adds that transportation directors must “never deceive the staff.”

49. High Ethical Standards
Similarly, great transportation directors are ethical.

Dale Fambrough of the School District of Palm Beach County (Fla.) says that means the director “does the right things at all times and does not circumvent any policies [or] state or federal guidelines.”

50. Community Involvement
Serving as a resource in the community can help transportation directors grow support for the yellow bus.

Gannon recommends taking advantage of opportunities to get involved in planning committees for public transportation or emergency preparedness, assisting first responders in training and having “a voice in community issues.”    

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
Comments ( 6 )
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  • Marcos Torres

     | about 11 days ago

    Although I knew that most of these traits were very important for school transportation managers, seeing it presented so well and straight forward lets me know my thinking on this was on track. It also tells me why our situation is in the state it is in.

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