Deborah Hersman – Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
She Rules the Road
By Caroline Cox
Every time you buckle your seat belt, stop for a pedestrian or resist the urge to text and drive, know Deborah Hersman probably had something to do with it. As Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, her top priority is keeping people safe.
Since being appointed to the organization as a board member in 2004 by President Bush (and reappointed later by President Obama), she’s been pushing initiatives that protect children, deter distracted driving and assist accident victims and their families. The NTSB investigates approximately 1,800 accidents a year.
At the helm of this 400-person agency with a $100 million dollar budget, Hersman, 41, oversees budget, production, policy and outreach for the organization. She worked to improve the NTSB’s website, communication of safety issues with the public and regularly speaks before Congress. She says her greatest joys come from spending time with her husband and three children, exploring her innate curiosity and being a compassionate leader.
Here, she talks to PINK about her goals, growing up abroad and why she’s so in love with her job.
PINK: What’s your success secret?
Deborah Hersman: Recognizing that nobody’s perfect. I’m very curious. I like learning and I’m passionate about what I do. I think that comes through. I’m not looking at the clock to figure out when it’s going to be over. I want to see the goal achieved. Every job I’ve had has felt like a second education for me. I’m fortunate to have worked in jobs where I’m inspired everyday. It’s that excitement that brings me to work every day. The people who are the best at their jobs – whether they cut hair or lead an organization – are the people who love what they do.
PINK: What’s the biggest issue facing professional women today?
DH: I’m a mother of three sons [Taylor, 11, Wilson, 9 and Jackson, 6]. I’m very fortunate to have a supportive family structure and network, and I can’t imagine how difficult it would be if I were a single parent. The real crisis for women in our workforce today is they tend to be the ones responsible for taking care of people. When women enter this period of their lives where their career is taking off and they have additional responsibilities, that’s when it can get difficult. They may have a geographic separation from parents who are getting older and having health problems. They may be having issues finding good childcare. That’s a big issue, because we don’t have cookie cutter lives. Some people need to work late, travel or be gone on weekends.
PINK: How do you balance life and work?
DH: When you have children, there’s a different dimension to your responsibilities because you feel torn. I drive on an interstate for about 20 miles to and from work. There’s an exit [I pass while driving] where I stop feeling guilty about the things I’ve left behind at the office and the work I need to do and things that are undone, and I start feeling guilty about how late I’m getting home and the things I have to do there that haven’t been done. I haven’t made that call to my mother or checked in with her. I think women in particular feel the burden of all those responsibilities and the limited time we all have each day to accomplish what we need to do. The balancing act is hard.
PINK: How did you go from being a Virginia Tech graduate to landing a spot on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation?
DH: I worked for seven years on the House side for [Democrat from West Virginia] Congressman Bob Wise. I started as an intern and worked there for two summers in college. I was hired as his scheduler, then legislative correspondent, then legislative aide, then office manager and then I was his committee liaison to the Transportation Committee for several years. That was where I first worked on transportation issues with the NTSB, which I now lead.
PINK: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
DH: The best advice you can give to anyone is to set goals. Whether they’re career goals or just life goals like health and wellness. I think setting goals is very important. You have to know where you’re going to get there. Setting goals helps you make progress and understand the journey is sometimes just as important [as the destination]. Goals can change; you just need to have them. Setting goals and finding what you love is probably the most important thing anyone can do.
PINK: What kind of leader are you?
DH: My leadership style is inclusive and collaborative. I like to include other people in the decision-making, but that can be difficult. Some women have a tendency towards collaboration and bouncing ideas off other people. But you need trusted teammates, advisors, colleagues and friends who you can do this with. I find that as I get higher up into divisions in different organizations, I’ve become more isolated. It requires you to make decisions alone in many cases. That has been uncomfortable for me at times. I’d rather talk things through with people. I also want to nurture and take care of people.
PINK: How do you employ that leadership style?
DH: I think I like to see everybody happy. Just like with children, you identify people’s strengths and weaknesses and try to help them through the things that are hard for them. You identify the things they’re good at and let them excel, but you also recognize things they’re not so good at. Sometimes you have to be really direct and say, “When you get an idea, you’re not listening to other people. Here’s what you need to do.” Or “You need to speak up more because you have really great ideas, but nobody’s getting to take advantage of what you know.”
PINK: What’s your biggest weakness?
DH: I care so much about people. I think that is a weakness because I get caught up in people’s problems. But again, that’s also my strength. Everyone comes to me, to talk and fill me in on things. I hear about a lot within the organization because I’m approachable and people feel comfortable with me. But that’s hard as a leader because if you’re very approachable, you can get overwhelmed. There’s no filter sometimes.
PINK: How do you deal with that?
DH: It’s hard to be that nurturing, caring leader, then compartmentalize and close those things off when you need to. When people are sick or dealing with a divorce, that breaks my heart a little. It’s like a mother watching her child do something that hurts them – you don’t want that to happen. One of the challenges of being a leader is being able to separate yourself from all the things going on around you. As a person who gets very engaged in things, I see a lot of drama around me. I see all the stress that goes on in the workplace. I try to keep that out of my office. We’ve all had bosses, coworkers or [employees] who are tyrants or scary, who don’t create a good environment. I work hard to keep that drama out.
PINK: How do you hire?
DH: I worked in offices on Capital Hill for 12 years – on the House side for seven years and on the Senate side for five years. We had very tight quarters. There would be maybe five people in the same room together, sometimes with bookcases in between. We’d be hearing each other’s conversations all day because there are no walls. Obviously, the team environment was important. We used to do group job interviews with the whole team. That was an informative experience. Any hiring decisions I’ve made moving forward have been group interviews. Or I gave the group an opportunity to meet with them and give me feedback. You have to defer to your team because, in many situations, they’re the ones who are going to be working closely with that individual, not you.
PINK: What’s the biggest career risk you’ve taken?
DH: I think you should do something that challenges you every day. If you don’t, you can get to a place where you’re not taking risks. Then you become complacent. It’s a challenge not to get too comfortable. A lot of people come to me and say, “I can’t believe you did that, you’re so brave,” or “you have a lot of courage.”
PINK: How do you deal with feeling like you’ve failed?
DH: It’s not about losing or failing – it’s how you respond afterwards that defines you. I work in an organization where we look at accidents and see bad things happen. [Hersman has been the NTSB board member on-scene for 19 major transportation accidents.] We see companies, individuals and family members who’ve lost someone. The time when people really amaze you is when they’ve been through something very hard. That’s when you learn who you are. When I lost votes or put forward a position and it failed, those were the times when I was defining who I was.
PINK: How has your upbringing resulted in your success?
DH: I’m an Air Force brat. My dad was a test pilot, fighter pilot and a general in the Air Force. I grew up all over the world during the Cold War. We moved 13 times [before I was 18] – I lived in Europe, California, Jordan, Alabama, Spain, Virginia, Germany and England. I went to four schools in four countries for high school. That taught me about resiliency and change. It’s hard going to a new place where you don’t know anyone. There are things you feel like you can’t get through, but you can. That’s what life is. That part of my childhood helps me understand that life is peaks and valleys sometimes. You have to appreciate each stage.
PINK: Did your mom work?
DH: Yes – by training, she was a teacher and dental hygienist. She didn’t work as much because we moved a lot. It was hard for her to make a career for herself. My mom was an amazing inspiration to me. She ran marathons before women were really competing and being athletes the way we are now. I always saw her set goals and accomplish them. Where my dad gave me the driven, detail-oriented qualities and love of learning, my mom gave me the qualities that make me want to be nice to people. She was the one who took care of everyone. I hope I can be a fun mom and a fun grandma like she is.
PINK: How do you relax and rejuvenate yourself?
DH: Although I don’t do it as often as I like, I enjoy exercising. I’ve done a triathlon every year for the last five or six years. I did five [triathlons] one summer when I was actually in really good shape. One of the challenges of being very busy is that we don’t always take the time to take care of ourselves. Exercise is always the first thing that falls off my schedule. Work, family, sleep, and then exercise probably are where the demands for my time are. I love spinning. When I can get to the gym, usually on the weekends, I like to take a spin class. That’s something I look forward to. It’s nice to be able to step away from expectations.
PINK: What are you reading right now?
DH: My oldest son is 11 and a voracious reader. He’s one of those kids who read the Harry Potter series three times by the time he was eight. I try to keep a finger on the things my kids are reading or doing. So my son was reading a series called The Hunger Games trilogy and I asked if I could read it. I love it. I’m on the third book. I finished the second book this weekend. I’m able to take myself away to another world. I really enjoy that.
PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
DH: Before I was driving, I was flying. I soloed in an airplane before I got my driver’s license. I don’t have my pilot’s license, but I did that when I was a junior in high school. It was through an aero club that was on base in Spain. I used to ride my bike two or three miles over to the aero club and take flying lessons.
PINK: How do you define success?
DH: Loving what you do.
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