When the veteran transportation engineer changed lanes from the public sector to a private firm, he used his blinker and stepped on the gas.
By Richard Massey
Jon Chiglo has been a principal and project manager in transportation for more than 20 years and currently serves as COO at WSB. Chiglo’s extensive experience includes program management, project management and delivery, design, construction, contract management, innovative and accelerated project delivery, and technical team supervision. Chiglo spent more than 17 years at the Minnesota Department of Transportation most recently serving as the Deputy Chief Engineer/Engineering Services Division Director. He also managed four of the top five largest projects MnDOT has administered and has worked in multiple district and Central Office roles.
“Empowering my team is important and it is not my job to make every decision or micromanage, but rather help solve challenges and act as a resource for success,” Chiglo says. “I want my team to feel that they have the confidence to make decisions at the right level.”
A CONVERSATION WITH JON CHIGLO.
TZL: You were with the Minnesota Department of Transportation for nearly 18 years before joining WSB. Did you experience culture shock? And, if so, what did you see in the private sector that you did not see in the public sector?
Jon Chiglo: I didn’t experience culture shock. Much like the Minnesota Department of Transportation, WSB has a strong culture. We provide our staff with flexibility, great benefits, and we’re lucky to have very talented individuals working here. There are things I miss about MnDOT, but what I really enjoy about WSB is the variety of clients we are exposed to and the opportunities we get to work closely with cities, counties, private firms, and different departments of transportation across the nation. The variety is exciting and comes with a new set of challenges.
The level of competition that exists among private firms was surprising to me. I’m a firm believer that collaboration creates success but understand that competition drives business. I’m enjoying learning the business side of a private company and it’s something I’ve always been interested in. At MnDOT, I was focused on being a good steward of tax dollars. At WSB, I’ve been able to think strategically about operations and how they can affect staff, clients, and the company.
TZL: WSB is an entrepreneurial growth firm. It’s also a large firm. How did you adjust to the business environment of an aggressive private firm?
JC: Throughout my career, I’ve been drawn to opportunities that challenge me. Where others may shy away from challenge, I find them motivating and have pushed myself to tackle them. I’ve savored WSB’s aggressive growth goals and I enjoy being part of a leadership team that actively seeks opportunities. These opportunities allow for professional development throughout our organization. In the time I’ve been at WSB, I’ve grown as a professional and have worked hard to elevate the success of our transportation group and company. We’ve set lofty goals and I look forward to achieving them.
TZL: President and CEO Bret Weiss is a well-known industry leader. What is it like working with him and his leadership team?
JC: Bret gives his leadership team a lot of latitude but believes in communication. I appreciate his management style and embrace the responsibility that Bret puts on his staff. He holds us accountable. I also think his entrepreneurial spirit has largely contributed to the success of WSB.
TZL: Your specialty is major highway projects that cost millions and take years to finish. How do you keep things moving forward over such a long timeframe, when so many things can change from beginning to end?
JC: Project success is built upon a strong team, especially when working on long-term projects. As a project manager, part of my job is to clear the path for people on my team. I like to set expectations from the beginning to ensure that my team feels ownership of the project. Empowering my team is important and it is not my job to make every decision or micromanage, but rather help solve challenges and act as a resource for success. I want my team to feel that they have the confidence to make decisions at the right level. Balancing responsibility is incredibly important, and when done well, leads to success for both the project and the team.
TZL: Along with your role as COO, you also act as WSB’s Transportation Group Manager. What’s the key to keeping your team engaged, productive, and on the lookout for new work?
JC: Keeping your team challenged by identifying the right opportunities for them is so important. I like to play to their strengths, but also give them room to grow. As a manager, it’s my job to understand the skills of my staff and identify opportunities that fit these skills. I focus on putting people in the position to be successful. An engaged team leads to successful project results. If you’re challenged and enjoying your work, you’ll perform better. I have a great team around me and I am constantly looking for opportunities for them to thrive.
TZL: Public awareness and community engagement are crucial to successful delivery of an important piece of public infrastructure. What are a few of the lessons you’ve learned about the engagement process during your years with MnDOT? And how did you transfer that knowledge to WSB?
JC: Transparency and speed of information is key to public engagement. The public expects accurate and quick information. It’s not fair for them to get their information from behind closed doors. Having spokespeople interacting face-to-face and leading communications efforts with the community is effective. We need to be direct and when possible, give immediate answers. Engineers aren’t known for being extroverts, but direct communication skills are becoming increasingly important.
For example, while working on Minnesota Highway 212, I went with a colleague to a neighborhood where an access was being changed. We spoke directly to residents and changed the access alignment immediately based on their feedback. The residents went from being outraged to grateful in a matter of minutes. Listening to the people that you’re impacting is vital to a project’s success.
TZL: The 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis: How did this affect you and what did you learn from this tragedy?
JC: The sensitivity surrounding this project was not lost on me, it aged me. Through this experience, I learned that a highly-functioning team – owner, contractor, and consultant – can accomplish enormous feats. Our team worked closely and resolved problems quickly and our issues resolution process was so effective resulting in few change orders. We worked together to quickly identify and implement solutions and the level of collaboration throughout this project was incredible.
On a personal level, this project humbled me. It brought to light the significance of engineering and how it impacts a community, both good and bad. If we do a bad job, it could result in tragedy. If we do a good job, it will improve our economy and quality of life. Unfortunately, we experienced both impacts during this project. The tragedy of the collapse was horrible. It reminded all of us of the risk we manage. The collapse of the I-35W bridge spurred a national effort to monitor the safety of structures across the United States, resulting in increased safety of structures. The public support for this project and the communication across multiple stakeholder groups was outstanding. We took a well-balanced approach and combined it with a highly-functioning team that showed the world the best of civil engineering.
TZL: You have experience with public-private partnerships. What’s the biggest key in making sure risk is properly managed, and to delivering the project as planned?
JC: I have a lot of experience with alternative delivery and the key to making sure risk is properly managed is ensuring it is assigned to the party that can most effectively manage it. Largely, projects fail over time due to poor communication. I believe that beginning projects with aggressive and frequent communication forms a foundation for success.
TZL: Design-build is a way to complete a project in a timely manner. As an engineer with experience in
design-build procurement and team coaching, speak to the pitfalls of this form of project delivery, and how to avoid them.
JC: Risk management is a major factor in design-build projects. Again, assigning risk to the party that can best manage it is key in all types of project delivery. Design-build project success is also dependent on a collaborative environment. If you’re unable to build a collaborative team environment with the contractor, your project will struggle.
TZL: If you were sitting in a classroom with high school students, what would you tell them about the opportunities and lifestyle a career in civil engineering can provide?
JC: Just like any job, civil engineering is what you make of it. There are so many opportunities within this civil engineering industry that include career paths in transportation, municipal, water, wastewater, structures, environmental, etc. I encourage people to find their passion and pursue it. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career and civil engineering has helped me build both personal and professional successes. I’ve had several opportunities to work on some incredibly challenging and character-building projects. To me, the challenges inspire me. Watching the public react to a project that has improved their lives is satisfying. Civil engineering is solving problems that are environmentally sensitive, it’s shortening someone’s commute, it’s rebuilding a bridge after tragedy struck, or improving the safety of an intersection. From the outside, it may not appear the most glamorous of positions, but from a public service perspective, it’s extraordinarily rewarding.