While women make up more than half of the workforce in the United States as of 2021, they still only hold 35% of top management positions. In Fortune 500 companies the statistic is lower: as of 2022, women held only 8.8% of those leadership positions. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re featuring stories of women in fleet who beat those odds, and who are leading the way in their industry. These are the women showing girls what it takes to break through those gender barriers and thrive in the workplace.
Vickey Patterson, Vice President of Administration, has worked at Michigan-based United Road Services for a little over 36 years. United Road is an industry leader in vehicle and heavy-haul transportation services, shipping over four million units annually throughout the United States and Canada. Vickey started in the fleet industry when she was in college, as a way to help pay her way through school. Through this early experience, she became intrigued by the way fleet companies operated. “It's addictively fast, it's ever-changing, you have to pivot quickly, and you have to be thick-skinned. You can't take things personally and you have to figure things out as you go.” That’s been her mantra since the start: “Let’s figure things out and get the job done as we go.”
From the start of her career, people trusted Vickey and empowered her to lead. She describes her first boss assigning work to her and then letting her run with projects. “When I first started, we didn’t have computers and he wanted a new network and he told me ‘You will learn it and then train everybody.’” Her boss knew it was going to be important to adopt the leading computer technology to stay at pace with the competition and he gave Vickey the responsibility to adopt the next phase company-wide. “I spent that year going from terminal to terminal, making sure that processes and workflow were done correctly. I trained the terminals as well as the drivers and management. I established the processes from billing a customer, paying a driver, as well establishing vendor payment terms and user setup. I was on the ground floor when we set up our network.” It wasn’t long before her leadership skills and her work ethic led to promotions.
In a fleet company building relationships with your drivers is paramount
From the onset of her time at United Road, Vickey was building the systems and processes that would define future United Road operations. Because she started from the ground floor, she learned how the most basic things were done at the company, things like managing drivers, how payroll worked, as well as how to onboard a new customer and vendors. She also built close relationships with the drivers over the years and included them in a lot of conversations around improving the systems they used daily. All of this helped her build trust and mutual understanding with her drivers. “Without our drivers, we're not in business.” As Vickey and her team built those driver relationships and nurtured them, the company culture developed into one of respect, openness, and mutual understanding.
Working for visionaries provides the opportunity to learn and grow your career
Vickey’s first boss was a visionary who consistently developed new ways of thinking about how they might improve operations, and she and her colleagues engineered his vision. This gave her a lot of autonomy and the opportunity to lead. It was through these early projects that she learned project management. “He trusted us, and he understood us, and when we had pitfalls, we came together and fixed them.” When she and her team determined something, they were working on had hit a challenging spot her boss pushed them to dig in and figure it out. “There were days when he said, ‘Go figure it out, how it's going to work, because it needs to work,’ and we did.” This built Vickey’s confidence and it also helped her see what she was passionate about. She enjoyed the work, she found it challenging, and at the same time it was exciting to be there executing on his vision and even at times making it better.
The thrill of working for an ever-changing business and cross-training to gain all the skills you need
When Vickey started at United Road, they were delivering freight, including delivering Kayak Pools. The company was also into warehousing, and then they started in home delivery. “We supplied services to companies such as Highland Superstores and Silo. We furthered our home delivery method to include the Home Furniture line with Gorman's furniture as well. Around 1998 we received the opportunity to enter car hauling, and car hauling was a whole different business for us.” Through all the change, Vickey was able to learn different aspects of the business and grow her career, expanding her knowledge and understanding of fleet companies. “Some people say, ‘I can't believe you're still there!’ but you know, I'm still learning.” Vickey describes peers who worked multiple jobs at different companies gaining different experiences. Her career path involved doing all that learning at one company in different roles. She describes herself as a “jack of all trades” and lists the variety of work she’s done over the years from settling driver payroll, learning how to setup a network, learning business contracts, setting up new software to setting workflow processes to ensure the company’s success. “We weren't heavy into titles. It was a culture of, ‘Whatever you need, we can do it for you.’ We facilitate many aspects of the company today and my team is the support center for the entire company and that's the philosophy. I remind them, ‘We can do anything for anybody. And if you don't know the answer, find it.'” As the company grew, Vickey’s role always had numbers at the root of it. “It was everything and anything, but the majority of it was financial.”
Vickey continues to value always being in a state of learning. “I love being the person who develops the process and puts any necessary control factors in place to ensure its success. I like to be part of initiatives that involve determining the future of the company.” She thrills in creative problem-solving and approaching a barrier with fresh ideas and seeing those ideas through.
How mentors can help you capitalize on your strengths, recognize challenges, and overcome them
Vickey’s first boss, Mike Wysocki, was president of MPG Transport, which eventually became United Road. He taught Vickey the importance of allowing employees autonomy. “His concept was, If I surround my people with smart people, I don't have to know everything. He opened the door of opportunity for me and let me find my strengths in different areas.” He provided leadership to Vickey and followed it up with books on business and how to succeed in leadership, and as the company grew, he kept providing her with new growth opportunities. When Mike retired, he hired a new CEO, Kathleen McCann, who became Vickey’s next mentor.
“Kathleen was inspirational.” She was focused on diversifying the company, which Vickey saw as yet another opportunity for learning and growth for herself. Kathleen’s arrival was also significant to Vickey personally as a female in a male-dominated company. “I was always one of the guys. I was the only woman in leadership probably for 10 years and when Kathleen came in, she brought in a whole new energy. My role evolved, and under Kathleen I became a stronger vice president.”
How recognizing your weaknesses can make you stronger
Vickey started from an entry level position at United Road and worked all the way up the corporate chain of command, and as a result she knows all aspects of the company. What can come with that vast expanse of knowledge is a focus on the details. This is great if you’re responsible for managing a small team, but when you get to a higher management level a focus on the details can become a barrier to strong leadership. “As we grew larger, I was still that person who was the devil for the details and managing a large staff. What I should have done at that point was start delegating more and looking at things from a more strategic standpoint.” Kathleen recognized this and suggested that Vickey take a different approach to her work and engage with an executive coach to guide her. The coach taught her, "You're more powerful as a leader than you are as a doer.” Vickey initially was skeptical. She had been successful working in her old ways to that point, so why should she change a thing? Soon she understood that what her coach was suggesting actually made a lot of sense, and she then took on the change with energy and purpose. “To this day I would say that that was one of the best things that I did for my career.”
Developing young people with the leadership skills that will allow them to shine in the workplace
One of the ways Vickey has found her voice and provided value through her work is in mentoring young people in United Road’s community. She founded a local leadership program for high school and college students which brings students into United Road and gives career guidance. “I reached out to the local high schools and colleges and opened up the opportunity for them to learn what an office is, what would attending trade school provide them for job opportunities, what’s it like to work in our maintenance facility.” Vickey saw this program as an opportunity to educate local youth on the many different job paths available to them and give career guidance for students during a time that for some might leave them feeling bogged down with uncertainty. She keeps in touch with a lot of them who’ve gone through her program and from time-to-time will hear from them. “It's very rewarding when somebody comes back to us and says ‘You showed me the way.’”
Vickey’s also volunteers at a program based out of Michigan, called the Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) which provides career path sponsorships for high school students. “We teach local young people things like ‘What should you do in an interview? How should you communicate through social media?’” They train students on other basics as well: how to navigate software like Google Meets, Zoom, Teams, how to handle yourself in a business setting, and how to prepare for a meeting. Vickey recruited other United Road employees to volunteer for the organization. Recently there was a local DECA competition where Vickey and her colleagues role-played corporate executives and the students were scored on how well they interacted with them in a variety of situations. Vickey gets satisfaction from her work with local students and knows that she’s helping shape future United Road employees. Her efforts to give young adults the tools they need to thrive will be part of her legacy as a business leader in her community.
Advice to young women entering the workforce today
Vickey’s counsel to any young woman entering the workforce today is to not be afraid to voice an opinion and not be afraid to show what you know. Vickey wants young women today to feel confident in their abilities and not feel a desire to downplay them. “Be your own champion.”
The other piece of advice Vickey has may be the most important: “You need to like what you do. You can't go into a job every day and not like what you do. If you're dreading walking into an office every day, don't be afraid to change that career choice, be it with the same company, a different company, or a different career.”
Vickey shares one last kernel of advice for working people. Throughout her career, she's found success by having a thick skin and not taking things personally. “I’m a baby of seven, there’s no time for taking offense when you grow up with so many older siblings.” That ability to ignore the petty nuisances and focus on the work at hand has always benefited her. She advises young women today to be tough and focus on their own successes and in the end, they too will enjoy the opportunities Vickey has had. “Be competent at what you do, constantly be learning, and always be prepared – whether it’s for a meeting, when someone asks you for a figure in an offhand conversation, or when you have to prepare a report last-minute.” If you’re prepared and competent, it will show through your work and others will appreciate and respect you.
The world of fleet is fortunate to have a leader like Vickey whose creative, thoughtful approach to her work, her diligence, her openness to learning and growing as a leader, and her compassion for the future workers in United Road’s community make her an exemplary and inspiring leader, during Women’s History Month, and every other month of the year.
During Women’s History Month at WEX we celebrated three notable female leaders in the fleet industry including Susan Kirkpatrick from Buddy Moore Trucking, and Sherri Garner Brumbaugh from Garner Trucking.