A National Search Identifies the Right Internal Candidate for DART
After DART’s chief financial officer announced his retirement, the transit agency’s leadership team saw an opportunity to reevaluate the distribution of executive responsibility at the transit agency, which supports an extensive network of light rail, commuter rail, bus routes and paratransit services that move more than 220,000 passengers across the metroplex each day.
The former CFO had not only handled finance, but also overseen a number of different departments within the organization.
“When our CFO retired, we went through the exercise of fashioning out what we wanted things to look like going forward,” says Jesse Oliver, deputy executive director of DART. “We decided to carve out the financial aspects of that role and create a new executive vice president of administration position to oversee the administrative functions.”
Because the newly created position would have responsibility for strategic planning, human resources, procurement, risk management, information services and marketing communications, a unique skillset and experience were needed.
“We were looking for good, broad-based management skills, as well as some knowledge of transit and public entity operations and functions,” Oliver says. “We needed the person to have a depth of experience that demonstrated that he or she could oversee a number of different areas and bring value to those areas and the organization as a whole. We needed a nationwide search, as the candidate pool would have been limited if we were to have only recruited in the transit industry, and especially if the search were just local to Dallas or even statewide. We wanted to ensure that we reached out and drew in all potential candidates who might be interested and who had the skills and background we were looking for.”
DART used an RFP process to select an executive search firm to locate the best candidate for the new job, which would report directly to DART’s president and chief executive officer, Gary Thomas. Pearson Partners International was the firm that came out on top, and the search process that began in December 2017 was led by Lisa Thompson, LPC, PCC, vice president.
Thompson helped DART define the qualifications for the job, which included management experience overseeing senior-level staff, strategic agility, political savvy, business acumen and effective team-building skills. Pearson Partners then talked with hundreds of candidates from across the country.
“We did a deep dive into potential candidates’ backgrounds and brought in people with transportation experience who weren’t currently working in the industry, as well as others who didn’t necessarily fit the same old mold,” Thompson says. “We wanted to refresh the talent pool and look for the right skillset and talent that DART needed. DART’s executives already have a broad network within the transportation industry, so we brought in candidates they didn’t know and expanded their network and vision of what the talent landscape really looks like.”
After working with Pearson Partners to thoroughly evaluate each qualified candidate, the DART executive team interviewed seven highly qualified candidates using a custom interview guide created by Pearson Partners to ensure consistency across all interviews.
In June 2018, DART made an offer to one candidate who had gone through the entire Pearson Partners search process and also had extensive, first-hand experience with the transit agency: Nicole Fontayne-Bárdowell, a four-year DART veteran who was at the time serving as DART’s chief information officer.
“For some time, I aspired to advance within the organization, and when I read Pearson Partners’ briefing sheet, this job seemed like a perfect fit,” Fontayne-Bárdowell says. “I knew it was something I had to pursue, and I’m very pleased I made the move.”
While all of the candidates interviewed were capable of doing the job, Oliver says, Fontayne-Bárdowell stood out for her strong abilities as well as her transit agency experience and knowledge.
“In no way did we start this process knowing that we would hire an internal person,” Oliver notes. “Nicole was treated just like everyone else in the process and came out on top. We have great peace of mind knowing that the process was consistent and fair, and we met some excellent people that we will definitely contact if other opportunities come along. The pool that was vetted showed strong abilities and backgrounds, and that let us know there are a lot of good people out there who would consider being part of this organization.”
From Fontayne-Bárdowell’s perspective, moving through the Pearson Partners search process as an internal candidate was easy and seamless.
“My first interview with Pearson Partners was a very engaging conversation with Lisa and [Pearson Partners’ CEO & President] Keith Pearson,” says Fontayne-Bárdowell. “They managed the time well and covered a lot of ground. When they presented a list of candidates to DART, I was in the group, and the next step was an interview with Gary Thomas and Jesse Oliver. Going into the second interview, I asked Pearson Partners for coaching and received valuable insight and feedback. As an executive search firm, they know how to treat you.”
On the hiring side, Oliver was impressed by the reliability and timeliness of the Pearson Partners team.
“They were responsive to us when we gave them potential leads, and the overall pool of candidates they presented was very large,” Oliver says. “They worked with us to assess individual pluses and minuses and provided a great deal of input and analysis of candidates as a starting point for us. It was a great experience, and I would absolutely recommend Pearson Partners to others.”