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Men Who Get It: Mark Pestrella, Chief Deputy Director for Los Angeles County Department of Public Works

Mark PestrellaMark Pestrella knows that everyone has a story, and that women in particular need to feel they can tell their story without looking like they’re weak. “Really listening to my employees’ stories can change the whole environment.”

As the Chief Deputy Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, Pestrella is essentially the COO of all types of infrastructure that protect residents from natural and manmade hazards in Los Angeles County. With a service area that covers 4,000 square miles and 88 cities including Los Angeles, the department is made up of special districts that provide emergency services, waste management, water resource management, development services, transportation services and public building construction.

With a background in engineering, Pestrella started with the department as a civil engineer assistant, designing and reviewing storm drains.

Now 28 years later, his role as overseer for the 4,000 employees at 78 facilities involves “managing people, not things,” he says. “We have a large and very diverse workforce, which allows us to operate at optimum capabilities.” Pestrella knows that having a diverse workforce enables them to serve a diverse community, but it’s more than that. “If you are trying to create solutions without a group that reflects diversity in education, gender and culture, you’ll get a siloed response.”

Raised With Diversity

From a business standpoint it’s clear to Pestrella that the diversity of his team has to reflect the community, but he emphasizes that it’s also a personal value for which he credits his family dynamic. As a Pacific Islander, his father came to the country as a minority, but says he was “put in the box of mainstream white males.” Growing up with four sisters, a strong mother and a dad who believed in tolerance helped form his thinking, augmented by his childhood in San Bernardino, Calif., an area ripe with diversity.

Addressing and Overcoming Blind Spots

While acknowledging that everyone has blind spots, Pestrella says that he works consistently to address his, even asking trusted colleagues to help him identify them.

Public Works is primarily an engineering organization and as such, has historically been predominantly a male-based agency, but under his guidance, gender recruitment has improved greatly. Even so, he knew he had to address intolerance.

“I could see it happening throughout the organization, where the women were feeling they had to be superheroes to think they deserved a promotion,” he says, adding that in extreme cases he’s had to fire people whose blind spots were interfering with their ability to treat people with equity.

“I could see it happening throughout the organization, where the women were feeling they had to be superheroes to think they deserved a promotion,”

One solution he sees is for men to acknowledge and value differences, rather than seeing them as problems. “We’re being taught you can’t act like anyone is different but that’s not true, and not the best way to deal with gender diversity. There are built-in biases that we have to understand, respect and deal with.”

For example, he says that the way men approach a woman boss often should be different because their styles are usually different. As an example, the first woman director of Public Works for L.A. County is Pestrella’s boss, and he knows that when he comes to her with an issue, she wants him to also offer two or three solutions and then allow time for her to process them. “You have to educate yourself that there are some differences in style.”

And blind spots aren’t just for men. He recounts a woman employee who was so frustrated with the department that she wanted to share her concerns publicly through a complaint. Pestrella says she was one of the department’s best engineers at the time and had potential to be a top leader. He knew that her blind spot was causing her to miss the bigger picture. “She was hearing what she wanted to hear,” he says. Ultimately he was able to broker an arrangement where he would meet with her monthly to discuss her concerns in lieu of her continuing with her complaint. “I wasn’t trying to change her mind, but I felt that she was making a mistake in waving the woman flag. I was able to address her issues, and she has progressed in her career path.”

“I wasn’t trying to change her mind, but I felt that she was making a mistake in waving the woman flag. I was able to address her issues, and she has progressed in her career path.”

A Successful Technique To Start New Employees on the Path to Success

Pestrella believes much of his managerial success comes from a successful technique he uses with new employees. He’ll schedule an introductory meeting, and to ensure that he is in the right mind set, he turns off his computer and devices for a few minutes before they come in. “I want to make sure I am meeting them with an open mind,” he says.

They then embark on a meeting where there’s no note taking, just an opportunity for the new employee to share his or her background. “Over the years, it’s been an unbelievable journey of getting to truly know the people who work with me, and a real asset to establish that trust right off the bat,” he says. “I learn things about people I would never have imagined and almost without fail, I know I would have put them in a different box when I compare what I would have thought about them had we not had the meeting and conversation.”

Though he identifies himself as a private person, he makes a point to coach his employees and says there are several women over the years with whom he has felt comfortable sharing his philosophy. “When I see people who have great potential and the drive to be a public servant, it’s natural to want to share with them what has been successful to me.”

By Cathie Ericson