How This Deputy Director Cultivated the Skills to Become a People-First Leader

How This Deputy Director Cultivated the Skills to Become a People-First Leader was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.

Connie Lee has a wide range of professional passions, but she’s happy to return to her first love—human resources. After graduating from college, Lee worked at a nonprofit, where she created a standardized system to organize personnel files and processes. This role allowed her to make a meaningful impact on the company’s operating routines and internal management practices, which resonated with her.

“It was invigorating to connect the dots between the organization’s mission and an applicant’s professional aspirations and interests,” she says.

In 2006, Lee joined The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) as a Leadership Fellow. This two-year rotational program provided firsthand experience in several business functions, such as planning, finance, security, facility operations, and human resources. The fellowship experience was a perfect fit for Lee, paving the way for a rewarding career.

“I explored many different departments in the agency, such as the Executive Director’s Office, Aviation, and Law,” she says. “I also worked in the department for the World Trade Center before the towers were built.”

Since then, she’s been a part of several opportunities related to the agency’s financial functions, working under the Chief Financial Officer and first Chief Security Officer.

Today, Lee is the Deputy Director of Human Resources at PANYNJ, a role that combines her love of transportation systems with her sincere desire to work for an organization that helps people.

“PANYNJ is the economic engine of the region, and it has a fascinating portfolio that includes airports, tunnels, and bridges,” she says.

Here, Lee shares how the organization encourages professional learning and development opportunities, what she’s learned as a leader, and why staying true to yourself can help you ace a job interview.

What are your core responsibilities as the Deputy Director of Human Resources, and why does this work excite you?

My responsibilities range from strategic planning to day-to-day management. At a strategic level, I solve workforce problems that hinder the agency from solving even bigger problems. Daily, I work to motivate and support the employees within each HR division. I want to do everything in my power to be the leader my staff needs and wants.

The best part of my job is watching employees flourish in their roles. I also leverage and channel the work of my employees to achieve larger strategic goals. For example, at one point, we saw a dip in employee satisfaction because certain salary increases were processed manually. I empowered staff to automate and streamline the process, which boosted the engagement of the employees who were receiving the pay increase and those who had been manually processing them.

You’ve been at PANYNJ for more than 17 years. How does your trajectory reflect the company’s commitment to professional growth and internal mobility? How have you personally been supported?

My technical expertise and management skills were nurtured and encouraged through promotions. During this journey, I participated in leadership development programs offered by HR, received valuable mentorship from my supervisor and others, and took on stretch assignments that allowed me to recognize my potential.

I experienced the biggest commitment to my growth when Mary Lee Hannell, the Chief of Human Capital, asked me to interview for a position in HR. She recognized that my knowledge and skills were transferrable even though I had only taken on financial roles up until that point.

What learning and development opportunities are available for employees? How have you grown in your career since joining PANYNJ?

There are many resources for employees. Two that I’m excited about are Percipio and the Career Journey Navigator because both are online platforms that align with each employee’s unique goals and needs. Percipio is our new, robust, and intuitive learning platform that provides everything from books, videos, and full courses to audiobooks and live learning initiatives based on an employee’s preferences and schedule. In addition to practical resources and strategies, our Career Journey Navigator portal comes with one-on-one coaching sessions. There are also structured programs that help participants build and enhance the key skills necessary to serve as agency leaders.

I wouldn’t be the leader that I am now if I hadn’t participated in Leadership Exploration and Development (LEAD). The program provides participants with targeted and accelerated development on key skills that are important for agency leaders. It’s designed so that participants can immediately apply their learning to their day-to-day activities. I started the program when I was a new supervisor and had direct oversight of two employees. I learned that I needed to adjust my behaviors based on the person I was supervising, and I was provided with a framework to better understand how I could bring out the best in my direct report.

How has your career path at PANYNJ successfully prepared you for your current role? What skills have you developed that enabled you to rise to a leadership position?

Some experiences are directly applicable to my current role. For example, I’ve worked for 10 years in budgeting roles, which makes me uniquely qualified to work with the budget department on forecasting labor costs and needs. Other experiences have taught me how to resolve problems. When I worked in the budget department, I was responsible for answering questions about the budgeting system.

The skills that have enabled me to rise in leadership are my competency with data and my ability to incite sustainable change through collaboration. One of my first roles allowed me to immediately use these skills. When I was the Finance Manager in the security and police department, I used the available data about the workload and the workforce to successfully advocate for additional resources. My team and I created a model for financial forecasting and a curriculum for security leaders about financial management. We taught this curriculum to these leaders knowing that collaboration and their understanding were key to fostering a culture of financial accountability.

What important skills are required to succeed on your team and in the human resources industry?

I require my team to empower those around them. This is one of many competencies that are part of PANYNJ’s Leadership Competency Model. To ensure that all employees of the agency work at their fullest potential and their highest productivity, we must empower others.

We understand that you were working toward your law degree while employed at PANYNJ. What was the biggest challenge you experienced while pursuing both roles and how did you overcome it?

When I started my evening classes as a first-year law student, I learned that most of the other students were like me—working full time and attending part time. We all had to figure out what it meant to balance work, life, and school.

The biggest challenge was being honest with my supervisor and coworkers when the balancing became impossible. I remember studying for the bar while working on the annual budget submission for the security department. After a long day at work, I would return home only to fall asleep. I took six weeks off to dedicate myself to bar prep, with the full support of my supervisor. Recognizing my circumstances, the budget department even granted my department an extension. I’ll be forever grateful for the policies that allowed me to take the leave and the coworkers who believed in me and my dreams.

What helpful advice do you have for those striving to pursue a career in human resources and at PANYNJ? How can hopeful candidates stand out?

Stay focused on the human element in human resources. My customers are the employees in the agency, who provide excellent service to those who have questions about their benefits, pay, or career.

The other thing I want potential employees to remember is to be yourself. We all have personalities that make us perfect for certain jobs, and I encourage anyone to use this to their advantage. For example, about a year ago, I was looking for a project manager for HR. A candidate emphasized the importance of her planner during the first interview and then showed me her planner during her second interview. As the job required a high level of organizational skills, it was appropriate for the candidate to be excited about her planner. Since I set aside time each year to go shopping for a new planner, I was immediately drawn to this candidate.

What are you passionate about outside of work? What sparks joy in your everyday life?

Last year, I joined the board of a nonprofit organization, Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), that helped my family when I was a child. AAFE has spearheaded over 50 years of community development and works to advance racial, social, and economic justice for Asian Americans and other systemically disadvantaged communities. My expertise in finance and human resources is useful in this volunteer role, and being able to repay the organization in this way has been extremely rewarding.

I also find joy in Lola, my one-year-old Boston Terrier, and Zumba. During the pandemic, I became obsessed with Zumba. I always thought I lacked coordination, but my talented instructor has shown me otherwise.