Month of the Man: MTA CDO Talks Leadership and Advancement for Young Professionals

Michael Garner details balancing roles and advice for career positioning

Michael J. Garner, chief diversity officer, MTA (Image: Garner)

Last month, BlackEnterprise.com presented Month of the Man, where we brought you career features tailored for male leaders of color all over the world. We have extended this feature to once per month, where we will highlight career insights and advice from male leaders across the globe.

If you know anything about public transportation in major cities, several thoughts may come to mind—not all of them positive. But, it can’t be denied that highly populated cities such as New York and Los Angeles provide a vital service to millions of commuters every day, oftentimes successfully getting them from point A to point B, whether those points include home, school or work. Also, budgets for public transportation include billions of dollars in contracts and other opportunities for entrepreneurs and companies in manufacturing, retail and other related services.

BlackEnteprise.com caught up with one of the gatekeepers of the transportation industry, Michael Garner, who serves as chief diversity officer for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The MTA controls North America’s largest transportation network, serving a population of more than 15 million people in a 5,000-square-mile area, from New York City through Long Island, southeastern New York State, and Connecticut. Four of every five New York commuters utilize public transportation, according to the MTA.

In his role, Garner is responsible for developing and expanding Minority, Women, and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (MWBE/DBE) programs; overseeing MWBE/DBE Contract Integrity Monitoring functions and Title VI and Equal Employment Opportunity responsibilities; and managing activities and functions of the Office of Civil Rights.

Below, the University at Buffalo (SUNY) graduate with more than 20 years of experience in business development shares his insights on career positioning, leadership success and his advice for young professionals seeking to lead in their industries.

BlackEnterprise.com: Talk a bit about your career journey. How did you land at your current position at an entity that controls North America’s largest transportation network?

Garner: I spent a year in the sales industry upon graduating from college, and after that, I began my career at the New York State Housing Authority. I was there for nine years, serving as a senior buyer, making sure small, minority vendors and suppliers got contracts.

The experience gave me a great foundation as to how large organizations buy their goods and services. It also gave me a platform to create innovative ways to facilitate programs and strategies that include smaller firms in the process.

I went on to the New York City School Construction Authority, and was there for 14 years. I started as a staffer and eventually became senior director of business development. It was there that we created a number of programs that led to a record number of contracts being rewarded to city-certified MWBEs, [before coming to my current post at the MTA.]

That’s quite a career path—full of strategic advancement. What has helped you in terms of motivating and positioning yourself for opportunities in your career in business development?

First, it’s good to be a resident expert in analyzing what your industry’s environment is, what the problems are and how you will bring value and change.

Second, you have to be one who is not willing to accept no for answer.

And third, the former mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, once told me something that has always stuck with me: ‘If you are not planning, you’re being planned,’ meaning … if you’re not thinking and progressing for yourself and adding value to what you’re doing, someone else will [do so for you] and push you out.

Many commuters have had negative things to say about the MTA and its services. Talk a bit about balancing the duties of your role as well as the demands of entrepreneurs and consumers.

Our stakeholders want fast, efficient and safe service. If you look at the MTA, it is still the best bargain in the country because one fare of $2.50 can take you from the North Bronx to the south of Brooklyn. (Other cities charge by the distance.) What we’re doing is our most important function, which is to transport our customers in a safe and efficient manner.

People oftentimes see the MTA as just buses, subway cars and railways, but we also buy $5 billion in business services each year. It’s my role as the CDO to ensure that the goods and services we purchase are from the most inclusive sector possible. We are here to safeguard and bring balance to what we do, and make sure everyone is benefiting from the MTA.

In terms of leadership [and balancing roles], you must be focused, understand the facts, problems and solutions, and be empowered. For someone who is driving change, it must come from the top, and then the organization would adapt to effective change. That change must be focused on value.

In our case, the value is that taxpayers’ dollars are being spent in a cost-effective and inclusive manner.

What career advice would you give your 21-year-old self if you knew then what you know now?

I’d say have a foresight for employment and innovation trends. Students who are deciding on what to study in college or who are graduating should understand where the opportunities are going to be. Also, you must strive to be better than the best and to be excellent at whatever you do.

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