McCormick Magazine

A leader who listens

Neil J. Pedersen's rules of the road

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neilFrom energy issues and environmental concerns to major financial strain, the nation’s transportation experts are increasingly faced with daunting challenges. As administrator of the Maryland State Highway Administration and a leader in the national transportation research and policy arenas, Neil J. Pedersen (MS civil and environmental engineering ’76) is at the forefront of these challenges.

“He’s the go-to guy,” says Joseph L. Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate dean at the McCormick School, who served as master’s thesis adviser for Pedersen while he was a McCormick graduate student in 1975. Like Pedersen, Schofer is very involved with the Transportation Research Board, where over the years the two men have served on a variety of committees together.

“Everywhere I turned, I ran into Neil, and he is always the consummate professional,” Schofer says. “He is always the guy they ask to be chairman. He is very even-handed, a good listener, and extraordinarily fair. He is the kind of guy I like to point to when talking to my current graduate students as an example of where you can go in your career with the right skills and the right attitude.”

Pedersen is quick to credit Schofer and his McCormick education for his achievements — particularly as they relate to his ability to “critically think through the issues, analyze, and ultimately understand what’s important in making a decision.” As the head of a state highway administration of a populous and highly political area, Pedersen has had more than his share of difficult and high-profile decisions.

“Engineers love to solve problems, and I get to solve really big problems now,” Pedersen says. “I enjoy being given a huge challenge, sometimes an almost intractable challenge, and I especially like the process of going through consensus building and trying to find the win-win solution.”

Pedersen has found win-win solutions when others said it couldn’t be done. From the award-winning Woodrow Wilson Bridge project, which was recognized for revitalizing a crossing that had stalled travel in the Washington, D.C., region for decades, to the Intercounty Connector, which his team made a reality after it languished for 50 years in a purgatory of planning and pronouncements of impossibility, Pedersen’s stewardship has led to a number of major accomplishments. The list of his awards — including the Thomas H. McDonald Memorial Award, George S. Bartlett Award, and the American Planning Association’s Planner of the Year Award — as well as his numerous professional activities and publications — are a powerful measure of Pedersen’s success.

“I’m just overwhelmingly impressed with what he’s been able to achieve,” Schofer says. “It’s really a thrill to be in a professional setting and hear people talk about him in a revered way. I take great pride in having a connection with him.”

Key to the highway
aerialPublic service was always a draw for Pedersen, who says that upon graduation from McCormick he thought his ideal job might be a planning director for a state department of transportation. After working as a private consultant for seven years, he made the switch to the public sector when he was tapped to serve as the deputy director for planning and preliminary engineering for the Maryland State Highway Administration. Two years later, at the age of 32, he was named planning director, essentially meeting what he thought was his ultimate career goal. He served in that role for 16 years, before being named administrator in 2003.

Then and now, Pedersen finds great satisfaction in his job: “What fulfills me is making a difference in improving the quality of life for people, and better mobility makes so many other opportunities possible.”

Pedersen credits his listening skills as an essential element of his success. An active mentor and cosponsor of an advanced leadership program, Pedersen says his number 1 message in helping others understand the challenges of successful leadership is to learn the real value of listening. “It’s not just listening to the words. It’s really understanding the message people are trying to deliver. I spend time trying to validate everyone’s message and making sure I understand their goals. That’s how we build common ground and work together in a room full of disparate points of view.”

The fact that Pedersen has served as the state’s top highway official not only through leadership changes, but also through party changes in the governor’s office is a testament to his communication skills and diplomacy. “I attribute my being fortunate enough to survive a party change to a decision I made a long time ago. I decided as long as I was in a responsible position in a government agency, I would be most effective by maintaining a sense of professional, nonpartisan objectivity,” explains Pedersen.

That ability to approach complex decisions with a sense of objectivity goes back to his studies at Northwestern, and particularly his work with Schofer, Pedersen says. Schofer was the author of a national transportation research study considering evaluation methods for effective decision making, which Pedersen remembers as a great learning tool in both the classroom and his thesis work.

Facing the future
aerialOne of Pedersen’s areas of interest in transportation research relates to developing more effective processes for project development and approval. “We’ve gotten to the point in the system where the whole approval process takes years and years,” he laments. Environmental stewardship is another area of importance, Pedersen says, noting that issues such as climate change will and should drive key research in the immediate future and for years to come.

An additional challenge that worries Pedersen is ensuring that enough young people are attracted to careers in transportation. “I am concerned that we are not seeing as many high-caliber people interested in the field — particularly in public sector careers,” he says. Pedersen’s volunteer work and leadership is focused on trying to get more high school students interested in engineering related to transportation.

“He’s an exceptional role model,” Schofer says, citing Pedersen’s strong technical base in engineering and his powerful ability to reason out logical decisions. “He has such a global grasp of problems. I think he brings great power to his position.”

Pedersen traces his success back to McCormick. “My time at Northwestern probably prepared me for executive decision-making work in the public sector better than any other part of my background,” Pedersen says. He remembers clearly deciding to pursue graduate studies at McCormick when he also had the opportunity to attend prestigious programs at Berkeley and MIT.

 “I often reflect back on the difficult decision of where to attend grad school,” he says, “and I’m absolutely convinced I made the right one. Beyond the technical expertise, I think Northwestern did a good job of teaching me to look at the big picture and stay grounded in the reality of what’s actually happening and the situation at hand.”  

—Susan White