Erin Flanigan, Principal at Applied Research Associates, is a transportation engineer working with Federal and State-level agencies to advance emerging technology applications to improve safety and mobility of the transportation system. She has worked in the civil engineering space for 20+ years, which is known to be a male dominated space. When seeking out professional development opportunities, she was drawn to Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning’s Women in Leadership Program, a 5-day, in-person program designed to help professional women enhance their leadership and sphere of influence to create the change needed to succeed. Flanigan shared more about her experience, including the value of being in a room of female leaders, how it prepared her for a career shift and the lessons she continues to use to this day.
Tell us more about your career journey and current role.
I am a civil engineer, so I work in a male dominated field. Early in my career I was a highway designer, which was a very “boots on the ground” type of role and traditional civil engineering role. I returned to school to earn my graduate degree and after graduation I went into more of the policy and planning aspects of transportation, specific to emerging technologies. Over the last 20 years, I’ve specialized in intelligent transportation systems, working with technologies used in traffic management centers like dynamic message signs and strategies to respond to crashes more effectively. Also, I’ve researched the future direction for advancing the operations of the system with electric and autonomous vehicles, and all of the technology that will help us improve the safety and mobility of the roadways. In my leadership role today, I manage contracts and work with clients like the Federal Highway Administration, State Departments of Transportation and the National Academies of Sciences to advance research specific to emerging technologies on our roadway system, and it’s so much fun.
What led you to choose Darden and the Women in Leadership Program?
I don’t remember exactly how I found the Women in Leadership Program, but I remember the program spoke to me because I am often the only woman in the room. I liked that I could advance my managerial and leadership skills, understanding that I’m a woman leader in a mostly male dominated field, and so the focus on women in leadership piqued my interest.
Additionally, Darden is highly ranked and based on the east coast. I had previously taken another executive education course at another business school several years back and just didn’t have that great of an experience, so I wanted to try a new school and I’m really glad that I did. Darden knocked my experience out of the park, and I found the program to be so useful and beneficial.
What are some of the skills or new perspectives that you gained from the program?
One of the things that was a strong takeaway, for me, was knowing that I wasn’t alone. I met all of these amazing women in leadership roles and was able to listen to and identify with the challenges that they were encountering. I also found these great women who are out there knocking down barriers and was able to learn how they were addressing their challenges. I took so much away just from being in the room with the other participants.
Another takeaway was having that greater understanding of leadership, specific to slowing down, taking a breath and hearing from the other people in the class and the instructors. As an engineer, expectations are very product and results driven. The program reinforced that in my day-to-day life, it’s important to take a breath, look at the softer side of things, take a minute to understand the situation and have a conversation before driving forward to get the product delivered.
Has Women in Leadership helped you meet your career goals?
The program has absolutely helped me achieve my career goals. The program came at a time when I was in the middle of a career shift. It gave me the confidence to take on greater responsibility and a greater challenge in my workday. I have the confidence of knowing that the tools are in there and the processes are in place, and I can tackle my new assignments.
How was the program experience valuable or memorable?
There are two aspects I’ll touch on. First and foremost, there was a perfect mix between the presentations, exercises, group work, socializing and class discussion. Every faculty member who presented was fabulous in their own way and the materials were so valuable. I still go back and refer to some of those case studies or the material in the handbook that we got.
The second aspect was the individualized career coaching sessions afterwards. My coach gave me some exercises that I still do to this day, particularly an exercise in the morning that helps me make my workday more beneficial and productive.
What would you say to someone who is considering an executive education program like this one, but doesn’t feel like they can make the time for it?
Value yourself enough to say, “This is a good program to do.” It may seem as though you’re too important to be away from the office for a week, but in reality, you’ll get enough out of the program that you’ll come back even better at what you do. In the long run, it’s to your advantage to make time for professional development activities and to continually learn throughout your career. Don’t feel like you know it all even as a seasoned professional. This program has great value in it for everyone.