It’s been 18 years since Brian Ness first attended the National Transportation Leadership Institute. He was just starting a new position when his boss told him to pack his bags for two weeks; he was heading to Indianapolis.
“I felt there was no way I could spend two weeks away from work,” he says. “I was still trying to learn the job and get established in the community.”
Little did Ness know the long-term impact those 13 days would have on his now 40-year transportation career.
“It was a fantastic, life-changing experience,” he admits. “It was my first exposure to national-level training, which gave me a jumpstart on my career and helped me build a network of people I can rely on. Nearly two decades have passed but I still use many of the things I learned in that training to this day.”
While SPEA’s Executive Education team coordinates leadership programs for organizations around the country—including those in the healthcare, nonprofit, and federal sectors, as well as offering customized consulting services—NTLI is a collaboration with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and focuses strictly on contemporary leadership concepts, processes, and strategies for the transportation industry.
Participants—typically those in middle and upper management with strong leadership potential—are hand-selected by supervisors to attend, just as Ness was.
Having run the full scope of NTLI as a participant, current instructor, and now the director of the Idaho Transportation Department, Ness has seen how far the program has come in the past couple of decades.
“My group was all district engineers, so we were very like-minded,” he says. “There were positives to that but it is even better now because now we have more diversity of thought and more diversity of people.”
Ness says he can only recall two women in the class he first attended. Fast-forward to 2018 and nearly a third of the 51 participants were female.
Participants’ roles have expanded as well. There are attendees who work in human resources, planning, finance, motor carrier engineering, and operations, even an attorney general.
“It’s really the whole gamut of the transportation field,” Ness says. “My chief human resource officer attended this year and is on a team of people from other departments. She is getting a better understanding of what they go through and, in turn, those other members of her team are getting a better understanding of what HR goes through to recruit and make pay adjustments.”
But Ness is quick to point out that not everything has changed. He says some important elements have remained the same: the powerful networking and the program’s intensity.
“You start early in the morning and go into the evening,” he says. “Your team really has to perform after hours to deliver on projects that are due at the end of the two-week period.”
Ness is now the one doling out some of those projects. He teaches a course on changing culture in the workplace. The lessons come from personal experience. When he arrived in Idaho a decade ago, he says the department lacked credibility with elected officials, the media and the public—but that isn’t the case today.
“We have changed the culture at ITD,” he says. “We are more effective, we are ahead of schedule on many projects, and our morale is up. People now feel like they own their jobs and can make decisions, rather than just following orders.”
Ness credits some of the changes he’s made with lessons he learned at NTLI, such as one-to-one employee accountability. He wants to ensure attendees, including members of his own staff, have the same opportunities he did to grow during their careers.
“A lot of my employees come back energized and talk it up to other people,” Ness says. “Now people are getting excited. Yes, it is two weeks, but it is a really good two weeks.”