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Winter Tales with Meghan Oldfield
Talks / Lecture
23 June 2019
Canberra Light Rail Project Director, Meghan Oldfield, discusses life before Canberra, family and being a woman in the rail industry.
About Meghan Oldfield:
Meghan Oldfield is currently acting as the Executive Group Manager for City Operations in City Services.
Prior to this she was the Project Director for Light Rail Stage 1 in Canberra and has also worked on projects for TriMet, the public transport agency for Portland Oregon, USA. She also served as an Executive Director at the South Australian Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure in Adelaide.
Winter Tales - Meghan Oldfield
*Speakers: Margy Burn (M), Meghan Oldfield (O)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 23 June 2019
M: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to our first Winter Tales for the year. I’m Margy Burn and I am the Chair of the Australian Women’s Archives Project and have been very actively involved in the ACT Working Group for a long time and it’s my pleasure to welcome you here.
Let me begin by acknowledging that we’re meeting on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country and even on a grey and overcast day I love looking out of these conference room windows and thinking of what a beautiful landscape we live in and how fortunate we are to live in the bush capital on this land that was cared for for so many, many generations by the local indigenous people and was a meeting place for people from all over which again I think is something that possibly wasn’t known or acknowledged at the time the capital was founded. But it’s most appropriate that the capital should be – have been built on a traditional meeting place for so many, many centuries.
The Winter Tales, as many of you who are regular attendees at these sessions know, is generously supported by the National Library and it’s one of the activities of the National Foundation for Australian Women, the Australian Women’s Archives Project. We inevitably of course call that AWAP but the Winter Tales events are fundraisers to enable us to continue the work of supporting the building of the Australian Women’s Register which is a really important and growing source for authoritative information about women and the records that they have made and created and where they can be found and kept.
The – apart from the support provided by the University of Melbourne the Australian Women’s Register is very dependent on grant funding and volunteer effort so thank you for your contribution to supporting the work through your attendance today. I mentioned that the Women’s Archives Project is an initiative of the National Foundation for Australian Women which is a membership organisation which for 30 years has set the agenda for women’s issues nationally and been a collective voice for women in Australia. Apart from national advocacy and really important policy agenda setting the Foundation does also have preferred donor fund status and supports a variety of really worthwhile programs including the Australian Women’s Archives Project.
Really importantly 2019 is the 30th anniversary of the National Foundation for Australian Women and in July – actually at the National Library on July 23rd there’ll be a reception to celebrate that milestone event in the evening so if you would like to know more about that do come and see me after the formalities and I can take down your details.
This afternoon for the first time in Winter Tales we’re podcasting, recording the event for later podcasts for those who can’t be here so that means when we get to the question time we’ll actually ask you to wait for a microphone to be brought to you so that we can record questions or comments and I hope that brings Winter Tales to an even wider audience and will be another link that we can make from the Women’s Register site.
So today it is my pleasure to welcome and introduce Meghan Oldfield to speak to us. Meghan’s played a leading role in the introduction of light rail to the ACT and was the Executive Group Manager for the stage 1 light rail project from Gungahlin to the city and – which is probably unusual in major public transport projects to finish on time and under budget. I think despite the usual differences of opinion along the way, certainly since light rail commenced in April, it seems to have been incredibly well received not only by people who are well served by the route at the moment but also those taking excursions out to Gungahlin to try this new transportation experience. So I’m sure April the 20th however was a great relief when it came around for Meghan and her colleagues who are here today.
Meghan has a Bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from Michigan Technical University and a master’s degree from the University of Maine and before coming to Canberra she worked in light rail projects in Portland, Oregon and light rail in Adelaide I think brought her to Australia. I was - I think probably the first light rail I ever went on was the Glenelg tram in Adelaide but that – light rail has also been extended recently in Adelaide. So Meghan has been living in Australia for more than eight years, I think, and most recently as we now know in Canberra to work on light rail here so please welcome Meghan.
O: Thank you very much, Margy, and thank you all very much for having me, it’s quite an honour to be able to come and speak with you today, thank you. I would also like to begin by acknowledging that we’re meeting today on the land of the Ngunawal people and as we’re here to tell a story it’s important to acknowledge that the Ngunawal people with their memories and their stories hold the history of this land and we’re very fortunate to be here today so thank you very much.
So Margy did a really good rundown of who I am and why I'm here so I thought I would just talk a bit today about the journey that I’ve taken to be fortunate enough to come to Canberra and lead the light rail team in delivering light rail to our nation’s capital for the first time. It’s really quite an honour to have had that role and I’ve told many people that I was one of the luckiest people in town, I’ve had one of the best jobs in town because it’s such a – light rail is such a formative piece of infrastructure and such a good catalyst for future development in a place. To have been able to lead the team and lead the project in bringing that to Canberra, I’ve been quite fortunate.
So I’ll just talk a bit about the journey that I’ve taken along the way and what’s led me here. Certainly when I was doing my first engineering degree at Michigan Tech University back in 1990 I would have never imagined I’d be doing light rail and I’d be an Aussie and I’d be living in Canberra so I think one of the things that I’ll talk about a bit is just how journeys can change and I’m always very interested to learn others’ stories and how we go on our path through life because sometimes you find yourself on a certain path because of a choice you’ve made, sometimes you’ve just had a very chance encounter that can change everything.
I’ve had one particular one, I might even get a bit emotional because it’s – this is such an important thing for me but I’ve in particular had one chance encounter on my first light rail project that if I hadn’t had that five-minute conversation with a person on the street I wouldn’t be here. I just find it really interesting in that space to listen to stories and how that journey can change so I’ll share a bit of that with you. I’ll probably talk a bit about the benefits of light rail because I think it is so important for a place.
I’ll also go in a bit about some of my personal philosophies and some of my guiding principles that have brought me where I am. I’m also a mother of two young kids, my boys are three and five and they’re the reason I do everything I do so I’ll probably brag about them just a little bit too ‘cause they’re pretty fantastic. I’ll talk about some challenges I may have had along the way and just of course have time for any questions that you might have or things that you’d like to discuss. So yes, I’d just like to – I appreciate you letting me come here today to tell my story and perhaps we’ll have some sharings that resonate with each other and we’ll be able to take those on our journeys so thank you.
So I first – I decided to be an environmental engineer when I was in high school because I wanted to save the planet, everyone wants to make the world a better place and I thought I like math and I like science so I’ll sign up for that. It wasn’t until my third year at uni that we got into the main course and it was all about wastewater and I thought well working on sewers isn’t necessarily what I had my heart set on but I finished through that and it gave me a very strong base to make other decisions. Engineering school teaches you specifics about your task but it also teaches you how to think and how to be logical and how to do critical thinking and those skills will serve you well forever.
Another thing I gained from my time at university is in high school I was very nerdy and quite shy. I had my circle of friends but I felt quite uncomfortable sometimes having – making comments in broader situations so I joined a social sorority in university and I found that to be quite a helpful experience because it brought me out of my shell but it also showed me that a group of women, a group of 20 women with very different backgrounds, very different approaches to life can make connections and can be a strong unit even if we have very diverse interests and ways of approaching things. So that’s also a skill and an understanding that I’ve been able to bring forward that’s been quite important.
So after university I went to get my master’s degree at the University of Maine in environmental engineering. We were just talking about snow. Both Michigan Tech and University of Maine is quite snow country so it’s been nice to me to live in Canberra to be close to snow country again. Those were areas where we had so much snow you could just put on skis and just ski from home to school or home to work or whatever so that’s just a bit of an aside but loved that, that was great.
One of the important things for me for graduate school were the connections I made and the people that I met. There are a couple of specific connections and friends I made in graduate school which have spun me off into the direction where I am now so I’ll cover that in just a second as part of that questioning or thinking about people that you meet and decisions that you make and how those can influence your journey and where you go.
When I was looking for graduate schools I applied to most schools on the west coast of the United States ‘cause that’s where I thought I wanted to go. I applied to just the one school on the east coast which was the University of Maine and that was the one that gave me the best package so that’s where I went. I’m forever grateful that I’ve gone there before the professors that I met – it was a small place, the professors were really very integral in again helping me develop critical thinking and how to solve problems which has served me very well throughout. Also as I’ve mentioned I made a couple of relationships I’ll just speak to which have put me on that path. I do contemplate at times when I’m at a juncture in life, I do get a bit reflective about things that have happened over time and gosh, wondering what if I wouldn’t have gone to University of Maine, if I wouldn’t have met the person that I then later married and then split with and I wouldn’t have met another particular friend, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So I’ll just quickly – I’ll refer to that in a bit.
So then after school I set off to be an engineer and most young engineers, what we do is we go and we get a job in a design firm and we sit down with our pencils or our computers and we design things. So I did some work for my first engineering firm doing mostly as a – environmental engineer, I did a lot of sewer design, some street design. Let’s see, I guess it’s not terribly complicated, everything runs downhill so you just have to make sure the bottom of the pipe is deep enough. I realised that it wasn’t really something I was quite passionate about. The good things that happened in this space though is my employer believed that young engineers should not only design things they should build them so they took me out of my comfort zone from an office environment and put me in a hard hat and a vest and sent me out onsite to go oversee with the contractor the works that I had just designed on paper in the office.
That is something that I’ve always appreciated and will always appreciate because I wouldn’t have done that on my own and being forced out of my comfort zone into a different environment where I had to work with people that I wouldn’t normally put myself in contact with. I don’t usually – I wouldn’t normally have gone up to someone in an excavator and asked them a question or told them they’re digging in the wrong spot or something so being able to have the faith that my company placed in me to go out and manage those works was very, very important.
I’ve also had – so I was in my mid-20s at that time and I did have a couple of experiences where I was a young female out onsite working around a bunch of older males and I had two very different experiences. In one company it was a small family company and the people onsite either saw me as the same age as a daughter or the same age as a partner or a wife so they all took me under their wing and helped me develop my skills and learn how to interact with people on a construction site which is quite helpful. The other company I worked for, the President of the company told me that I should wear tighter jeans and lower shirts and that type of thing.
So that really threw me for a loop, I must say, because I’ve always considered myself a nice person and a kind person and no-one had ever spoken to me like that before so it is one of the great learnings that I’ve had, though, in how do you deal with that? So I took that home and I realised I couldn’t go to my boss at work because even though I appreciated that they took young engineers and put them out in the field there was also a good bit of that to deal with in the office, which I can address in just a minute, so I knew I couldn’t go to my boss.
So I talked to a friend and just screwed up my courage and the next day I said you know you can’t talk to me like that, that’s not okay and he said I talked to my wife about that last night and she said you dumb blank, you shouldn’t do that again, you’re really going to get in trouble. So anyway we talked through that and he ended up kind of taking me under his wing and showing me how he did his books ‘cause he was looking to retire soon and he was thinking that I could be perhaps the next person in his company. So that taught me how to stand up for myself in a way that was productive for lack of a better word.
There was another female engineer who was working underneath me at the time and he did something similar to her and so I was able then also to help – in the same timeframe so I was also able to help her kind of through that but that’s – that definitely was an eye-opener to me because as I said I hadn’t normally been treated like that and I think when you – and I’ve had a few instances in my career when you do get treated personally in a way that’s quite negative and is quite demeaning. You always know when something’s wrong but when it happens to you personally and you can feel how bad it feels that does help you make sure it’s not going to happen in the future. I definitely was much more able to pick up the signs of that kind of thing happening on future sites either to me or to other people so I’d be able to shut it down in a way that’s as respectful as possible.
So in that role I learned a lot about my craft but I also learned how to develop some strength of character for myself. Then I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve met two people at the University of Maine that were – helped in my trajectory. One was the person who was my then boyfriend and now ex-husband and so after he graduated he wanted to move somewhere new, start somewhere fresh so I packed up my bags from that job that I was working and we decided let’s go somewhere completely new. We had three different cities in the US we might go to based on connections we had. One was Denver, one was Boise, Idaho and one was Portland, Oregon.
We decided that of the three our best chances were Portland and Boise. We had a friend in Portland, we could stay on their couch and we knew somebody in Boise that might be able to get us a job so we packed the U-Haul and headed west and we thought we’ll just go to Boise and if we like it we’ll stay and if not we’ll keep going. We ended up – the day we drove through Boise there was a temperature inversion, I couldn’t see from here to Carolina in front of the truck so we said let’s keep going so Portland we went, landed on Al's couch and that was really good.
So I ended up getting another job with another consulting firm in Portland which just reconfirmed for me that I'm not – my brain doesn’t work as a designer, I’m more of a manager of process and things. I don’t really care how big the pipe is and I’m not good at designing widgets. But again I mentioned the connections that you make so that first connection brought me to Portland. The second connection was a friend of mine from Maine, was then working in Portland. She knew I was really unhappy and realising I’d just spent 10 years in this engineering space and I didn’t actually like it but it turns out I was just in the wrong part of engineering. I was – I just didn’t have the right fit in what I was specifically doing so she said hey, there’s the public transport agency in Portland, TriMet. They’re building a new light rail line, they need people out onsite, why don’t you go apply to be a field engineer?
I thought well I’m an environmental engineer, I know sewer, I knew water, I can do a street if I need to. I don’t know the first thing about transport, I never took a transport class. She’s like how hard can it be? I said well that’s probably a good point so put my CV in and I got the job. So this was an extension of Portland’s light rail system and so my first work with them was to be – I’ve done three light rail jobs in Portland and this was the first one so I was out in the hard hat, the boots every day working with the contractor just day in, day out. You may have seen some of our surveillance officers out onsite during the building of the light rail project here and that was my job, just to look at everything they did and check the drawings and make sure it was right and talk to them if it wasn’t and you put that in the wrong spot, gosh, that’s not the right slope. That’s actually quite good, please do more of that, that kind of thing which was - and I love my job but I had – I liked it just because I like construction and I thought it was fun. I liked knowing – being able to see every day that what I had done was going to make a difference and was going to be a change right there right in front of me which was really fantastic.
Then one day – this is that five minutes that completely changed my path. I liked it not ‘cause I like light rail but because I liked construction and then one day a member of the public came up to me and I was in all my gear and he said do you work on this project? I said I do and he said well thank you, he said because what you’re doing is going to change my life, you’re going to make my day so much better and he went on to talk about how he was going to be able to get to his job better and how it affected his family and then he walked off. He won’t ever know that that five minutes he spent talking to me – like the penny dropped and I was like oh, what I'm doing really matters like this changes how people get around, it changes their day, it’s a backbone of how someone’s life could work. It could be really instrumental in so many different things and I’m forever grateful to that person for that time that they spent with me because I may have just wandered off and just done another construction project or another who knows what when that was done. But that settled it and I was like this is what I want to do, now I know how to make a difference.
Then I went on to work on two other light rail projects then for Portland so the next one I took was a six-year effort taking it from a line on a map through – I did some of the early design myself and then managed the designers and managed the contractors and did the handover into operations. When I finished that a really good friend and I, we were on the opening day and I was – I had this feeling, which I’ve since talked to the light rail team in Canberra about, I was just very sad and I felt very empty and she was – it wasn’t something she did so she said I just - you were supposed to be so happy, what’s wrong? I just realised at that moment that I just – it meant so much to me and it was so important to me to do this properly that it was almost like - I hadn’t had my kids yet – it was like this was my baby and I was now handing it off to someone else. That just solidified for me that what I was doing was the right thing for me.
I then went on to work at a third light rail project for Portland and that one – I must say it didn’t go quite so well. It was a multimodal and multistate effort that wasn’t managed particularly well from the top so there’s a major river that separates the state of Oregon and the state of Washington and Oregon and there’s a major interstate that goes from Canada to Mexico. It goes across this bridge and the bridge is very old, it was built in 1917 and 1953 and it’s a lift bridge so there’s a stop light and there’s seismic problems, there’s a lot of earthquakes in that area and so this was a big effort to rebuild this bridge. It had two Department of Transport, four federal agencies, two cities, two of everything.
The lesson I’ve taken from this one is the project wasn’t respected at the top of either of the state organisations. For the state of Washington – that’s where Seattle is – they had - this was a $4b project but they had two projects that just dwarfed the size of this one and they didn’t give it the attention that it needed so it didn’t have good management and good oversight. The lesson I learnt here was in the absence of strong leadership, in the absence of good direction the loudest noise will fill the void because the people that were – because it wasn’t led well and that top echelon was quite absent the people that came in to run the show effectively were just the loudest ones, not the best ones and the project wasn’t respected properly and it never happened.
Anyway so how did I come to Australia? So in 2007 when I was working on that project that I took from cradle to grave there was a work exchange that happened between the head of my agency, TriMet, and the then Premier from South Australia. South Australia had been looking externally to find cities that they might like to emulate for different reasons and Portland was one so there was a work exchange for a light rail project so I came over to Adelaide for two months in 2007 which was a fantastic opportunity and then I made some connections. Then the person I worked for became Chief Executive of the Transport Department in Adelaide in 2011. The government of the day had wanted to expand their light rail system around Adelaide so they said would you like to come back? I said well that would be fantastic, thank you, that would be great.
In the ensuing six months of getting all of my paperwork done to come across there had been a change in leadership. Machinery of government changes and light rail was no longer something that they wanted to pursue so – and that happens so I arrived in Adelaide in November of 2011 with a two-year contract and really not much to do so that was interesting. That was a good introduction for me into how machinery of government changes and things can happen here.
So I spent some time in Adelaide, though. I looked at that as an opportunity because there are other ways to make a difference, there are other things that you can do to make the world around you a better place. I looked for what skillsets were missing in that space so I worked for the Transport Department, the Department of Planning and Transport and Infrastructure in Adelaide and they were looking to do new things in community engagement at the time so I did a community engagement lead which was really interesting and quite helpful. I did some other major projects leads and then I also met Emma Thomas who was the – at the time a deputy CEO for that directorate and she was the head of public transport.
She brought me on with her team to be the head of customer experience for public transport which was pretty much – it was setting itself up to be a dream job because - because of the importance in the value that I place on public transport as a way to shape a city and to shape a place and to allow – to act as a catalyst for other development in infrastructure such as light rail but also for the buses and trams and any infrastructure that you have for a public transport system, it’s such a fundamental backbone of a healthy city. As we look at where we’re heading in terms of climate change and other factors that are going to be affecting us in the future having a strong, well-functioning public transport system I think is critical so I was very thrilled to have that position.
I then went away to have my first son so I had my kids later in life, I had my kids at 41 and at 43. Another challenge then that I had is coming back from maternity leave, there’d been a restructure while I was away so I came back to have that job that I thought was perfect didn’t exist anymore and that was quite disappointing but you learn resilience in a lot of different ways. So again I picked myself up and I found where there might be a void and they were doing – they had just started the restructure of the department, they needed someone to step in and kind of run the restructure process, not make the policy but there were 43 different directors and the directors – the middle management level were all in charge of doing all of the restructure and there were a number of different – the staff all had to be consulted, the unions needed to be consulted, it needed to be done with proper timings and things.
So I put together a team and ran a process to do that which was very helpful for me. When – one of the philosophies that I live by is at TriMet, the public transit agency in Portland, their motto when I got there was how we get there matters and that was one of the reasons I started taking public transport in the first place was because it got me thinking, oh so my personal choices, my personal footprint are going to make a difference overall and how I get there matters so that helped me start taking the bus. But as I’ve gone through life I’ve realised how we get there matters isn’t just about public transport, it’s about how you do all the things so this exercise in helping restructure an agency of over 2,000 people was important to me to see where I can make a difference to help it be better and really positive for the people around me.
I’ve also learned a lesson in that space in that the people who were doing the policy of how we do it didn’t have empathy, were quite callous. Since people knew I was running the restructure I would have employees come to me and say I’m really nervous about X, I’d pass that information up the chain and I would get answers back saying well they should be scared for their jobs because of whatever. So here’s another one of my learnings. This was at an executive meeting and most of us executives just went oh okay but I said well that’s not right, that’s – you’ve got people who are really hurting and they’re really scared and because I pushed back I got silenced and pushed to the side.
So then I went off to have my second baby and I came back to no job at all and that was another one of those instances where when you're personally treated in a way that doesn’t make you feel very good, that’s something you would never just inherently do but when you're – when that happens you learn about how you're going to treat people in the future. The importance of being true to yourself is something you do need to stick with.
Anyway so I realised that wasn’t working for me anymore. Emma Thomas had asked me when she first came to Canberra to establish the – to do light rail here. She was the project director at the beginning for the Capital Metro Authority – Agency? Agency. She asked if I’d be interested in applying for a job. I had just had my first baby so the timing wasn’t great – or my sec – anyway. But then once my second baby was old enough she rang and she said they’re now hiring for the Deputy Project Director here in Canberra, would you be interested in applying? I said I think it’s time, let’s give it a good go. So I did and I was lucky enough to be successful in the role and so in July of 2017 the family and I all moved here and we’ve really enjoyed Canberra, it is a beautiful place to live.
We find ourselves very fortunate to live both in Adelaide and now in Canberra which are lovely places, to have such a good quality of life, good places to raise your kids, good places to get around in and places where you can make a difference which I think is really important, especially now that I have my kids. Like I said I’ve always wanted to leave the world a better place than I found it but especially now that I have kids. Once they’re old enough to start asking the questions about what’s happening with the planet and with climate change, when they say well Mum, what did you do? Like you kept – you left me to go to work every day, what did you do? I'm really proud that I’ll be able to say well what I’ve done is to help people make a choice in how they get around and to help make it easier for people to be thoughtful about their mode choice and to give them a good selection so that people can make the choices that are right for them about their daily journeys. That something that’s really important for me.
So we’ve been in Canberra since middle of 2017 so I was the Deputy Project Director for the light rail project for the rest of 2017 and then the Project Director ended up leaving the position and then I was hired in that role. So I was the Project Director then from January of 2018 just now through opening through Easter. That’s – that will be far and away one of the highlights of my career. Because – for a number of different reasons, the ones I’ve already mentioned about the pride in bringing a new mode of transport – a formative mode of transport to your nation’s capital, to your new home city, to your new home country. That’s just something I’ll never get to do again and I'm really proud of that.
The team that I worked with, some of the team is sitting right here, they’re amazing. I told the team many times I would put them up against any other light rail team in the country, they’re so talented and so passionate and I'm very proud that I was able to lead that team through some really fun but some also really challenging times. So I think that that’s something I’ll always be very proud of which I guess leads me a little bit into some of the philosophies I have on leadership.
I’ve recently done a mentor program, been a mentor in a program for the National Association of Women in Construction, NAWC, and it’s been lovely. The person that I’ve been partnered with, she’s basically me 10 years ago so we got along really well but she was asking some of the questions that I forgot that I’d kind of worked through and she really had me think about leadership style and about what’s important in strong leadership and what makes a good leader. So I think you can summarise it in a few ways. I mean you need to be true to yourself, you need to find and know what your true north is and stay with your true north. I’ve worked on a project once where the person I was working for had a very different calling true north focus, motivation, whatever you want to call it.
I wanted to do something because I believed in what I was delivering and this other person wanted to do it because they wanted their name on the plaque. At first I thought well we want the same thing, we want it for different reasons but that’s okay but then as we started to get into the nitty-gritty of delivering this project it became quite clear to me that the choices that person would make were very, very different than the choices that I would make and it was quite a good learning for me and that I need to stick with what I think is true.
When I was looking for the role that brought me to Adelaide in the first place I was offered a position to work for a consulting firm that was delivering light rail to San Diego, an extension of light rail to San Diego and this consulting firm was going to be in charge of the planning and the delivery and this was a person who had been – who’s quite instrumental in delivering quite a few light rail projects around the country. He was looking to find the next person to take over his business and he wined and dined me and we rode in all of his fancy cars and went to all these fancy restaurants and things and I could have basically set up my – just written my own deal. But when I was with him the way that he talked to wait staff at restaurants or heard him talk to his gardener it just made me feel a bit sick, to be honest. So I told him no and I couldn’t really say why but it didn’t feel right.
So there have been times when sticking with what I think is the right thing to do hasn’t served me well in the short term as I mentioned that time in Adelaide where I said your people aren’t happy, you need to do something. It didn’t serve me well because I did get put to the side but I don’t regret any choices that I’ve made over time. I think that every time you have a fork in the road and you pick one way it’s for a reason and there are good learnings to come from all of those. I recognise that I’m quite fortunate, I live a really nice life, I have a beautiful family. I want my children to recognise that they’re quite – they’re lucky, they’re – I want my children to grow up understanding that they have privilege and they need to be able to contribute to the world around them so I said one of the first thinkings that I stick to is know your true north and stay with it.
The other thing that I tell my kids as one of my kids were born, I thought well what do I want for them? I want them to be kind so we talk about that, the most important thing is to be kind, to have empathy. It’s funny how many times you just don’t see that and it’s not that hard. And how we get there matters so that how you do things – not just the what you do but how you do them is really important and I guess that kind of ties back to just be kind and have empathy and be thoughtful in how you do things and how you approach things.
I guess I’d say I also have found at major junctures in my life having focused thought and I call it ask the universe or whatever you need to but just writing down what you want on a piece of paper, putting it in a drawer, I find that really helps focus your attention to bringing what the right next thing for you is. So it’s just – it’s about having confidence in yourself and sticking by what you think is the right thing to do.
There are of course challenges. I do have a young family and I do have a challenging job that are matched up at the same time. I’m very blessed that my partner, Colin, is the best dad/partner/worker, whatever you could ask for. We have a really good blend and a really good union. When I had the kids I stayed home part-time and then when we moved here for this job he went part-time so I would go fulltime and we’ll probably go back and forth over time as that goes but it’s not an easy balance. One of things I’ve had to realise which we’ve talked about as a team is you can’t be all things to all people and you have to understand that you’re not always going to – well you just can’t be all things to all people sometimes, can you?
So I think having that balance is something that we’re constantly working on and I think it’s important to be able as a leader in a place to show that you’re trying to do the balance too. Sometimes I do bring my kids in. If Colin can’t look after the little guy he’ll come in with me for a couple of hours or something and I think it’s important to be able to show the people that you work with that that’s important because family is – family first, family’s always the most important thing so that’s an important piece of the balance.
I don’t want to run too much further over on time. I guess I’d say I’ve really appreciated this chance to come and speak with you and to tell part of my story and why I do what I do and hopefully you’ll be able to see some of the passion that I’ve brought to the job and the love that I’ve had for the team and for light rail and for this place. I’ll be forever grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to make such a positive difference to a place that’s important to so many people for so many reasons so thank you very much.
M: Thank you, Meghan, that was wonderful. I'm sure there will be people who would like to ask questions so please could you put your hand up and Emma will bring the microphone to you for the recording.
A: Maggie Shapley. Meghan, I’m interested in your third experience in Portland about the crossing of the river, thinking about stage 2 of light rail and talking about two jurisdictions, ACT Government and federal government. So have you got any reflections on this challenge that lies ahead?
O: I mean there certainly are some parallels. I’d say that this one probably is more of a solvable problem than the other one but what we didn’t have – it was called the Columbia River Crossing – what we didn’t have was open and honest dialogue, you had assumptions that were made. So where it all fell apart – so there were three different buckets of money, the federal government was giving money, the state governments were going to give money and then there was going to be a tolling component. The federal government showed up to the party, the tolls were going to take care of themselves and then with the two states, Oregon and Washington, Oregon gave the money, Washington had had a change in legislature so it was a more conservative government and they just weren’t inclined to fund so it fell apart.
The problem was that there had just been so many assumptions that I'm so important, clearly this is going to get funded, clearly this will go ahead. The President said it’s important so we have to do it and the work wasn’t done, the respect wasn’t given, the dialogue just didn’t happen in order to make it come to fruition. It was a really fractious project for a lot of reasons that you wouldn’t necessarily have in this instance. So Portland on one side of the river is very little L liberal, of course and very passionate about public transport. The city on the other side of the river is quite conservative, very antilight rail, very antipublic transport, the different taxing structures and so there were just a lot of differences that wouldn’t be the same here but the same principles apply, don’t they?
Just you need to have really clear communication and transparent communication and good leadership at the top of both organisations just right from the beginning and understanding what common – there was also quite an issue with what the ultimate scope was supposed to be. That never really quite got nailed down and agreed to so it’s needing to do that right up the front.
M: Time will tell. Anyone else like to comment or ask a question?
A: I was in Adelaide and I really enjoyed the tram thing but then I was shown the hands-off driver bus route thing.
O: Oh the O-Bahn.
O: O-Bahn is great, yes. Yeah, love it.
A: Why can’t we have that here? That was rather good. I just like the driver sitting there, folding his arms, feet up on the front and the bus drove itself.
O: I know, it’s good. For some reason that mode just kind of fell out of favour. There’s the one here and then I think there’s a couple in Germany but it never really seemed to take off. I think the basic thinking is if you’re going to develop that kind of infrastructure rail is typically a preferred mode over bus.
A: It certainly beat the road.
O: Oh yes.
O: Yeah, no, it was.
M: You might need to explain it to people.
O: Oh so the O-Bahn so that is – it’s a dedicated busway and you use normal buses except they have little steel wheels that come out the side and so this busway, it’s a concrete sheet with concrete kerbs on the side so the little steel wheels come out and they hit the kerbs or the guard wheels effectively and the driver can take his hands off or her hands off and it just drives around. So it’s a dedicated busway same way we have a dedicated tramway.
A: I have another question if I can. Gender. The tram engendered a lot of ill will and I think you coped with it fantastically and I wondered would – how would have a male dealt with it?
O: That’s a good question and one thing that I found interesting, to be honest, so as I mentioned there was another person that was the project director when I first came here in 2017 and then he for non-project related reasons left the project to go back to Sydney. So I found the first month or six weeks or so of my time as the project director I had to be very thoughtful about how I assumed the role. We’re both really competent, really smart, good leaders. His style was very, very different than mine so it’s about how do you lead a team through different leadership styles through what’s going to be the most difficult time in a project? The last couple of months of any project are always mental but it was especially so here because we had to match in with the bus network and there was so much potential for scrutiny and things to not go well.
You might want to actually ask my colleagues if they thought I was a good leader, not because I think – one thing I guess I would say is I’ve now stepped away to do a different job for a few months and they gave me a nice card when I left and they had words on that was how I’d like to be seen as a leader. It was really about being fearless and compassionate and respectful and trusting of your team. I think that that’s really important. The last couple of months before the project opened we’d have a meeting every day at 4:00 and it’s 4:00 and so we’d all come sit in the kitchen so we could all be up-to-date with the absolute latest of what was going on in the project so we were all doing the same thing and travelling in the same direction.
One of the things we talked about was how we’re going to feel when this is done so that might be different in how I would handle it rather than the person that was in the chair before me. I don’t know if he was as in touch with how you feel about the delivery and remembering the pride in what we’re doing and it’s not just about the – getting all of the concrete in the ground at the right time, it’s about remembering the context of why you’re doing it.
One thing I guess I would mention – so I did definitely experience more of that gender discrimination at the beginning of my career. As I mentioned out in the field I had that stuff said to me which wasn’t particularly great. In the office in that same place - so the first person that I worked for, the President if the company where I first worked, I came in from the field one day after talking to this contractor who had then become my friend and he was kicking the copy machine and he looked at me and he was like this is just like a woman, you got to kick it to make it work. I just turned around – I just didn’t know what to say so a couple of weeks later I was in the break room and there was a – on the board there was a – top 10 reasons that beer is better than women.
So I was like you can’t say this and he’s like while it’s the first amendment, I can say whatever I want like – so I knew that I was quitting to move in two weeks to move out to Oregon to do something else so I didn’t tackle that and perhaps I was also too young to tackle that. I think that now I would take that further because now I would have more confidence and I would have more a surety in myself. The true north that I’ve developed, it’s always been there but it’s been stronger over time and I'm more sure in myself now. So I haven’t had those really obvious forms of discrimination lately. I will say that even on the project here there have been times when just I don’t get heard in a meeting and I think that as I – the longer I was in the project director role the less that happened.
But when I was the deputy project director that did happen a couple of times and the person who was the project director, he was great because I would say something, people would ignore it. The next person would say it and he’s like no, actually, Meghan just said that so he would – I said I don’t even know if you notice that you're doing that but you’re being a really good advocate for women so thank you for doing that ‘cause that’s really important. He didn’t even notice he was doing it, it was just kind of in his nature which was lovely. But there is still that component in there. When I’m in a new situation even now I do know that if I’m meeting with the contractor for the first time or person X for the first time, if it’s a man I do know that the first thing out of my mouth has to be on. I need to be smart, I need to say the right thing and I need to say something that’s not just frivolous because that does still happen.
A: I wanted to ask you to compare the United States and Australia in terms of leadership. Are there differences between the two countries?
O: Well the first obvious difference is the way the political system works is quite different so in United States you see the politicians a lot less so when you're talking about leadership you – we don’t see the politicians as much in the day-to-day as we do here so the leadership is – there seems to be more – how to say this – the head of your agency is the head of your agency without the Minister on top of it, for example. Did I say that nicely? I – ‘cause I mean that respectfully but it’s a different system and the planning ability is different so – ‘cause my partner’s American too. He worked at the transport agency in Portland also. We’ve kind of just shared – been employed at the same place the whole time, it’s been brilliant so he’s – he does cycling and walking, active travel-type related things. So he gets to answer the same question when our kids say well what did you do, Daddy? He’ll say well I make it easy for people to cycle around and walk around so we’re a good pair.
We do talk about this sometimes, what the differences are and I think because in the United States the head of an agency is a bureaucrat, not a politician, there’s more ability to do long-term planning if that makes sense. So that’s different. The US is far from perfect, you read in the news, I’m sure. It’s a hot mess and so there are a lot of problems there that need to get nutted out. I’d say the basic fundamentals of leadership are the same but the way that the political system is set up does have – does definitely have an impact, I’d say. But there’s things like because the US Congress is so broken right now there hasn’t been a real transport bill in years so trying to get transport projects funded is really difficult.
The transport funding in the United States is not necessarily great so there’s the federal transport administration that handles highways and airways and railroads and all that stuff so they give money to federal highways every year. So each department of transportation for each state just gets a bucket of money just based on how big they are. There you go, see you next January, good luck, have a nice day. But federal transit is a competitive bucket of money so in order to get money for light rail or certain bus infrastructure you have to compete with all of the other jurisdictions around the country and it can be very manipulated by whoever’s in charge. So for example when Clinton was in, for Clinton it was much easier to get federal money than when Bush 43 was in so – I guess it’s kind of the same here, depends on who’s in charge depends on what kind of money they want to give you for different things. But yeah.
M: I think we’ve got time for one more question if anyone would like to ask one. No? Oh yes, there’s one there.
A: I’d just like to make a comment, Meghan. It is so hard for me to hear how younger – how you have handled, managed dealing with men’s overtures to women whereas my generation and older, we were good girls, we were nice, we were kind, we were naïve and at the best we might have tried to laugh things off and to deal with it that way. So it’s just so heart-warming to hear how that has changed so yeah – well it’s still happening but you’re responding to it so thank you.
M: Well I'm sure you’ll all wish to join me in thanking Meghan for a really fascinating presentation and if anyone hasn’t yet been on the light rail I’m sure you’ll feel you wish to give it a go. I – as a former Adelaidean I want to say the other thing about the O-Bahn is it’s created the most wonderful linear park and so again just to reinforce really so much of what Meghan told us about, it’s not just about a mode of transport, it’s all else that’s wrapped around it. So I’ve really enjoyed hearing you this afternoon and I’m sure people will enjoy adjourning for afternoon tea in the rooms next door and continuing the conversation informally with Meghan and with her team. So join me in thanking Meghan.
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