Interview with Shawn Leight

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Shawn J. Leight, PE, PTOE, PTP, FITE

Vice President/COO
CBB Transportation Engineers + Planners
St. Louis, MO, USA


What drew you to transportation? 

Transportation found me. My undergraduate degree from West Point was in Environmental Engineering, but during graduate school at the University of Wisconsin I found myself in a research program focused on Automated Highway Systems.  I was drawn to the fusion of engineering and human factors.  I tell my students at Washington University that engineering disciplines usually involve engineering plus something else.  My Environmental Engineering degree was Engineering plus Chemistry. Transportation is all about Engineering plus people.   That part of the work has always fascinated me.  Over the years I’ve seen the great impact that our work has on people and communities.  We improve access to jobs and opportunities, provide choice, reduce injury and death, connect communities, encourage better health, create a smaller environmental footprint, and improve people’s lives.  Transportation professionals make a real difference in the world.

What’s been your biggest challenge over the last 20 years?

Not enough days in the week. I wish that I had more time to dedicate to all of the great things that life has to offer.  My great passions are my family and my work.  Liz and I have three children, and they are all involved in a lot of activities that we enjoy sharing with them.  I also enjoy my work, where I have had the opportunity to be involved in many great projects like a Complete Streets plan for West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson and the St. Louis region’s first Diverging Diamond interchange at I-270 and Dorsett Road. At the same time, it is a great honor and responsibility to be a part of the leadership at CBB, a company with a rich history of contributions to transportation and the St. Louis community.  I have a passion for students, and truly enjoy my time teaching as an Adjunct Professor at Washington University, helping to guide young engineers through their academic journey and as they enter into their professional careers. I also have a deep passion for ITE.  ITE is truly a tremendous organization in terms of the talent of its members, its contribution to the profession, and the impact it has on our communities.  I love committing my time to these passions, and I wish there were more time to give. In the end, the challenge is finding balance.

What project or task has been your most significant accomplishment so far?

New I-64 Design-Build Project.In terms of a project,my most significant accomplishment would have to be the New I-64 Design Build project in St. Louis.  This was the first design-build project ever initiated by MoDOT and,at the time,it was the largest transportation project ever undertaken in the state’s history.  I have enjoyed the competitivenessand innovation inherent in the design-build process.  One of the project’s key components was reworking the plans for the I-64/I-170/Brentwood Boulevard/Hanley Road interchange complex. We developed a new concept that took an entire level out of the interchange. The initial vetting for the new concept needed to be accomplished in a two week period, so our group broke into shifts so that we could work around the clock.  The new plan cut construction costs dramatically, which was one of the key reasons why the Gateway Constructors team won the project.  In addition, the team proposed a bold plan for a complete closure of I-64 west of I-170 in 2008 and east of I-170 in 2009.  The freeway closure plan was highly controversial but cut the construction schedule from six years to two.  CBB was heavily involved in traffic mitigation efforts, and the closure went more smoothly than expected.  The project was awarded the 2010 AASHTO America’s Best Transportation Project.

What skills have you had to learn along the way to remain relevant and/or to improve your effectiveness as a leader?

Adapting to changing communication platforms.  I’m continually searching for new ways to communicate more effectively.  Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter didn’t exist when I got my degree from West Point.  You spoke or wrote to someone, and the message was delivered!  While the fundamentals of communication have not changed, today’s communication channels are greatly different.  In today’s “connected” community, there are so many ways to reach people, and communication methods are constantly changing. There are many new opportunities.  I recently worked with Don McKenzie to initiate a Google Hangouts ITE Vice President Candidate Q&A session with the International District Board in Australia and New Zealand.  The fact that we can reach around the globe in this way is pretty cool and extremely powerful!  However, it also presents some new challenges. Because people communicate in many ways, it takes a sophisticated approach to get a message out.  Understanding effective communication is a critical skill for delivering great projects and leading an organization like ITE.

What is your decision making process, and how has it changed over time?

Understanding uncertainty.Ilike to think that I have a fairly typical decision making process.  I define problems, needs, and /or opportunities; establish vision, goals, and objectives; develop and evaluate alternatives; make a decision; and execute. I try to conduct this process in a collaborative environment with key stakeholders.  Collaboration allows you to reach better decisions and develop buy-in along the way.  My process has changed over time in that I have become more attuned to the uncertainty inherent in data and in the assumptions used in the decision-making process. One good example is travel forecasting.  We often create designs based upon 20-30 year travel forecasts, which are based upon a range of assumptions with inherent uncertainty.  I have learned to work with designers to mitigate uncertainty design process.  The result is projects with greater flexibility in future design and operations.

Did you have any mentors along the way? How did they inspire you?

Of Course! I have always had professional mentors, and I continue to.I choose mentors with strong character – people who have done what I would like to do.  I have gotten to know many mentors through ITE.  I could not list them all here, but two extraordinary people who have been special help to me in ITE leadership are Zaki Mustafa and Jenny Grote.  These and other mentors have given me confidence in what is achievable and helped me to understand the pathway for success. If you do not have mentors in your career, I encourage you to reach out to someone from ITE. You will be glad that you did!

Is there one piece of advice you’ve been given that you would like to pass on?

There are 3:

  • Be true to yourself. Follow your heart. You are going to spend a lot of time working in your career. Do something that you are passionate about.
  • Raise your hand.Volunteer for the tough assignment. Take on a position with ITE. You won’t know what you are capable of until you throw yourself in there.
  • Nothing is more important than your integrity.Our profession is all about people and trust. Your technical skills and experience are important, but they are meaningless unless people can trust you to apply them with integrity.

Was there ever anything that you wanted to do besides transportation? Do you ever look back on your career and wish you had tried something else instead?

I have tried something else.  I am very fortunate to have had a career in the Military before engaging in Transportation.  I started my career in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,leading a platoon of Mechanized Combat Engineers.  I loved the job, but decided to make a career change when my wife Liz and I got married.  Being in the Army was not compatible with Liz’s passion for her career in Cancer research.  I am humbled and very grateful for the service that many of my West Point classmates have provided over the past 20 years.  However, I am happy with the path that I have taken in transportation and the opportunity that it has provided me to make a positive difference in this world.

What is the biggest risk you’ve had to take in your career so far?

CBB. In 2002, I moved from a great job with a great company (Jacobs) to a small local firm (CBB).  I was told that CBB was transitioning ownership and that I would be a part of the new ownership structure.  It took us eleven years, but we finally got the deal done in 2013.  There were many ups and downs in the process, and more than once I wondered whether or not I had made a good decision. However, it has all worked out great, and we have a very bright future ahead of us.  Taking risks can be hard, but also very rewarding.

What do you see as the most pressing issue facing transportation in the next five years?

Short term – transportation funding. In the short term, we must find a way tofund transportation in a sustainable,predictable way.  It is imperative that ITE is involved in helping our elected officials understand how critical of a need this is, and that we are involved in helping to determine priorities for this legislation.   I am very thankful for the work that ITE’s Advocacy Committee is doing in this realm. There are also significant funding needs at the state and local levels.  In Missouri, my home state, the current funding shortfall has forced MoDOT to adopt the “325 Plan” which largely ignores two-thirds of the state’s system, leaving it to deteriorate.  We need to, and can, do better.

Long term – connected and autonomous vehicles. Connected and Autonomous Vehicles are coming, and we must prepare for them.  These vehicles are going to change many of the fundamental assumptions inherent in references such as the AASHTO Green Book, Highway Capacity and Safety Manuals, and MUTCD.  We need to start thinking now about how these technologies are going to impact our industry.  ITE must be at the leading edge of this effort.

If you are elected ITE’s next International VP, what will you do to support young professionals in the transportation world?

Give Younger Members a Voice. Younger members are critical to the long term success of ITE.  Not only are you our future leaders, but you can be a source of ideas, energy, and inspiration right now.  Some of the best ideas in history have come from young people; Steve Jobs arguably did his best work in his 20s. Our younger ITE members have great ideas as well. Involvement at the international level of ITE has historically been reserved for people in the later stages of their careers.  Members would typically work through the Chapter, Section, and District levels of the organization first before becoming involved at the international level.  This needs to change, and we need to provide opportunities for younger members to be engaged at all levels of the ITE organization. We are starting to see movement in this direction, but we need to redouble our efforts. Several ideas are discussed below which can immediately expand opportunities for younger members in a dramatic way.

Leadership ITE Program – The first year of the Leadership ITE program was a huge success.  The inaugural class included several younger members.  The impact that the program has had on the ITE organization is profound.  10% of the Leadership ITE’s inaugural class sits on the International Board of Direction a year later.  This program is a great opportunity for our younger leaders to get involved at the highest levels of ITE.  Applications for the 2016 class will be due in the fall of 2015.  Please consider applying for this program.  More information can be found at:

Younger Member Committee One of the outgrowths of the Leadership ITE program is the new Younger Member Committee.  Katherine Kortum is the chair of this committee which is focused on providing opportunities and programs for ITE’s younger members.  The new committee’s early results include a younger member dues schedule and the new Rising Star Award.  More information can be found at:

Technical Councils – One initiative that I am currently pursuing is opening younger member leadership positions on the technical councils.  Changes could be modeled after the TRB committee structure which sets aside committee positions specifically for younger members. This is easy to do and would allow for 1) younger member input and 2) mentoring opportunities for our younger members.  This is something that we can do now.  Find out more about ITE’s technical councils at:

Professional Development – As Chair of the Professional Development Committee, I am working to revamp ITE’s webinar program.  The ITE membership is diverse, and the educational needs of younger professionals need to be specifically met through this program.  I would like to work with the Younger Member Committee and technical councils to develop a younger member curriculum for the ITE webinar program.


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