It’s an extremely intricate process to help people get to where they need to go more efficiently. Anyone who’s ever spent considerable time sitting in traffic near our nation’s capital would likely welcome solutions to the type of gridlock that has long impacted driving on those highways.
For Pierce Coffee, President, North America at Transurban, reaching that goal means managing the development, financing, construction, and operations of major toll roads. Transurban, a global company headquartered in Australia, is behind toll road projects taking place in cities across the U.S. and Canada and in three Australian states. Those projects include perhaps one of its more challenging sets of roadways within Coffee’s domain: a 53-mile express system in Northern Virginia and the development of 52 more miles of such lanes in greater Washington, D.C., covering other parts of Virginia and Maryland.
Coffee, who has been with Transurban for 13 years and held positions both in North America and Australia, has served in operations, customer experience, marketing, and public affairs before becoming President in early 2021. While providing leadership is one crucial part of her responsibilities, Coffee also brings professional expertise that helps the business realize important plans that impact so many—plans like the aforementioned express lanes around Washington, D.C.—and in many instances, helps to broker private-public partnerships by securing the trust that makes them happen.
“These mega-projects are complex, and they face a range of challenges, from inception through to delivery—and those challenges change as you’re moving through the different phases of the project,” she says. Coffee points out that navigating massive projects with multiple moving parts requires a steady focus on the requirements of its many stakeholders and staying cognizant of her team’s objectives, while staying true to the vision needed to see past frequently shifting versions of the finished product and to carry plans to their successful completion.
A Positive Approach
Coffee feels that one main reason she’s stayed with the company for so long comes from her openness to learn and follow new professional pathways, even if she didn’t always know exactly where that would take her.
“A big part of it is saying yes. Saying yes opened me up to new opportunities and responsibilities.”
The various roles she’s held at Transurban have proven advantageous as she grew her role in the business. In developing strong foundational skills while delivering positive outcomes for the company, Coffee has been increasingly prepared for the lengthy and expansive processes involved in discovering solutions to traffic congestion, and she’ll be the first to admit that the toll road infrastructure business demands a great deal of resilience and creativity.
“With the twist and turns of these mega-projects, you’ve got to be continually focused on what the goals are, and then pivot and adapt,” she says.
But ultimately, she notes that fully considering the needs of each project’s stakeholders is critical.
“There’s always a range of people who strongly support the project and those who would much rather you go in a different direction, so you really need to understand all those views.” Those considerations are woven into the fabric of public-private partnerships, where federal and state processes need to be followed and communities seek to have their concerns met. Though legal deliberations, bureaucratic entanglements, and public issues of all kinds have long caused the boldest ideas to be compromised, much of Transurban’s works are completely new—literally trailblazing, in fact.
“Often, they are projects that have never been done before or projects delivered in a way that’s never been done before,” Coffee says. “You’ve got to be willing to carve ahead, push through uncertainty, and bring people on a journey with you.”
Diversity of Experiences
Getting back to the idea of saying yes, Coffee credits her willingness to embrace opportunity when it arises with the decision she made to temporarily relocate to work as Head of Marketing for Transurban in Melbourne, Australia.
She says while local, cultural differences are a factor wherever you are in the world, the experience of living on the other side of the world taught her that dealing with customers is often fundamentally the same: You need to know what they care about and collaborate with them to reach a shared goal.
“In the context of tolling, it’s not really a high-engagement category for a lot of people, so I saw a lot of similarities between our road customers in Virginia and Australia,” she admits. “But there were absolutely differences. Americans and Australians both speak English, but I had to adapt how I communicated to our customers, understanding their perspectives and drivers so I could create effective messages and programs that would resonate with them.”
Coffee says that most of the cities where Transurban operates are plagued by terrible traffic that they aim to fix, and is accomplished through public-private partnerships with governments to create road transport solutions. And while the markets contain parallels, each project’s clients, associates, and customers all have their own needs. Coffee says that the most instructive part of working abroad extended beyond getting to know the customer base in the three Australian states where the company operates—her broader insights came from getting more familiar with Transurban’s business at the corporate level.
“I learned much more about the internal workings of Transurban and how to get things done through our corporate functions, our board, and our executive committee,” she recalls.
Upon returning to the U.S., and to a series of Vice President positions across the company that led to becoming President, she continued to deepen her knowledge about leadership and fostering collaboration among diverse and distributed teams. The timing proved to give her an additional set of challenges when she assumed the role.
“I came into the position still very much at the peak of COVID in February of 2021, when many of us were all at home on a computer full time, and everything was still virtual. Transitioning into the role of President, I really had to think about how to connect with my team and engage them in what has now shifted to a hybrid model,” Coffee says. Prior to the pandemic, her colleagues had already been working collaboratively despite being spread out in different time zones, including cities in Australia, Montreal, as well as Texas and California, among other locations. “Keeping all our people engaged and connected is an important part our organization.”
She has found that the diversity of geography and culture within her company is equaled by its expansive technical expertise in a range of areas from traffic forecasting, contract law, and structuring financials to road construction, operating tolls, and everything in between.
“As a leader of this business, I’m not meant to be the expert of all of those streams, but I have to make sure that we’ve got the right teams with the expertise we need for what we’re doing today and for what’s coming,” she says, explaining that many different goals have required skills that weren’t necessarily part of her background. Her approach has been surprisingly simple: “I’ve asked a lot of questions,” Coffee says. “It’s curiosity that helps me to see how people are thinking about problems and solutions, to better understand an issue, or to create connections.”
As such, a critical aspect of leading people with diverse skill sets has come down to making sure that the many viewpoints held by people in her company are heard, “ensuring that we’ve created a space where people are comfortable to share their views, to disagree, and to have the respectful debate required to get to the best possible outcomes.”
Driving Female Achievement
Women represent another area of diversity that is of particular importance within the transportation sector, where Coffee says they hold only about 13% of jobs. It didn’t seem that way to her at first, as her predecessor was a strong female and a big name in North American transportation, which mistakenly gave her the impression that women and female leadership was reasonably widespread throughout the industry.
“But that’s really not the case. Further, half of our colleagues are expected to retire in the next decade, so the industry really needs to consider what to do to attract and retain diverse talent.”
Yet Coffee commends her organization, as women represent 40% of Transurban’s global workforce and half of its top executives. That impressive result is by design.
“The business has been very deliberate by embracing training, looking at diverse recruitment pools, and conducting regular reviews to ensure equal pay. We track and report results in this area, just like we do other key metrics for our business, in order to focus on diversity,” Coffee says. “It’s also really important to promote culture and tools that help women achieve long-term success. There are many times when it takes extra energy to be the only woman in the room.”
In trying to end the presence of microaggressions and ensuring that leadership, managers, team members are educated about the impact of bias, Coffee says they have also aimed to provide her female colleagues with resiliency skills to avoid suffering burnout. She believes the responsibility lies with everyone across the company.
“When I look back over my career, I’ve spoken out when I saw something that wasn’t okay, and I think that’s something we’ve all got to keep doing for each other.”
Communicating effectively proves to have long been an ability in which she excelled, dating back to the start of her career.
“I can remember distinctly feeling better prepared than some of my other colleagues when I first started working, because of McIntire. Having so many group projects in the Comm School taught me to work with other people who didn’t necessarily have the same background or same ways of working I did—just like the real world,” she says. “In general, so much of what I learned has stayed with me and helped me in my career. Working in diverse teams and the importance of that clear communication and being prepared. All of those experiences have served me well.”