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Leading with Diversity, Cooperation, and Kindness: An Interview with Mary Toutounchi

Mary Toutounchi is Vice President for Hill International’s (Hill) California Rail and Transit Practice. Born in Iran, Mary came to the U.S. in the 1980s to study engineering. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree and acquiring a professional engineering license in Arizona and California, she spent more than three decades building a career in the construction industry. In that time, Mary has held senior positions as a program manager, overseeing the design and construction of a wide variety of complex infrastructure projects, including rail, highway, and facilities, in both the public and private sectors. Mary joined Hill in 2019 to collaborate with Hill’s leadership team on strategic planning, business development, project delivery, and building delivery teams.

     

Q: What do you like about your career?

 

I have many professional interests, but I am especially driven to work for public safety, health, sustainability, and welfare. My career has allowed me to support the people of California in these areas. I appreciate the diversity of this career as well. Each day, each assignment introduces new opportunities. Such diversity has given me the advantage of understanding the challenges and solutions that different clients need.

 

Perhaps the best thing about my career are the relationships I have built. Over the past 30 years, I have established professional relationships and friendships with many clients, colleagues, partners, and subcontractors. I am extremely proud to say that I have garnered a professional reputation built on trust and cooperation.

 

Now, as Hill’s Rail and Transit Practice leader in California, I can leverage my relationships to collect highly skilled and diverse talent pools and provide the best solutions for all of Hill’s clients. Moreover, I look forward to leading junior professionals, cultivating their skills, and helping them grow.

 

Q: How have you learned about leadership?

 

As I look back on my career, I proudly admit that I had many great mentors. I would not be an industry leader today without their support. One enormous example: my mother, who made many sacrifices to support me and always made sure that I was able to follow my dreams.

 

I grew up in a business-oriented family and understood from an early age how important it is to be a good manager. The first step is to surround oneself with talented and enthusiastic people that care about their work. Without a team, a leader is a leader of nothing!

 

Having heard about the U.S.’s strong leadership training, I came to California in the 1980s to study civil engineering at California State University, Long Beach. There, I learned much about the technical side of engineering, but I also developed my leadership skills.

 

After I graduated from college, there was a recession. Having weathered that time, I know how it feels to look for job opportunities during economic challenges.  I know how hard it is to stay motivated and hopeful. I used to tell myself, “I worked so hard to get here, came to the U.S. from abroad, graduated from a college, taught in a different language, and overcame many other challenges—I cannot stop trying.” Not to mention, there was a difficult political environment at that time, which made it even more difficult for a foreign woman just out of college to find a job. I was so proud when I finally landed a position as an entry-level engineer at $11 per hour!

 

I have learned that it is also extremely important to be a humble, compassionate leader. Being a good leader is something that has to come from your heart. No matter how busy your life or your work is, leaders need to have compassion and care for their employees, or students, or anyone else they lead. I hope to serve clients to the best of my abilities, of course, but I hope just as much to inspire the younger generations to follow their dreams.

 

From these beginnings, I worked hard and worked collaboratively with all of the teams I have had the privilege to support. Respecting their diversity of experience, I tried to learn from everyone I worked with. Now, as a senior leader at an internationally respected institution, all of the lessons that have been passed on to me from my childhood, education, and professional career have paid off.

 

Q: What has your experience been at Hill so far? What are your goals with the company?

 

I consider myself privileged to have spent almost two years at Hill. Here, I have continued to learn, continued to work together with some of the best talent in my industry, and continued to grow as a professional. But at Hill, more than ever before, I have been given a chance to lead.  

 

Late in 2019, as Hill’s capture manager, I led a high-profile project/construction management pursuit involving Metrolink—an agency that provides commuter rail service across several Southern California counties. This pursuit was awarded to Hill in early 2020. This contract is a gateway for Hill to engage with more than 400 major rail and transit projects throughout Southern California. One of Metrolink’s major programs, Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion, is a $10 billion capital improvement program intended to upgrade Metrolink's system in time for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Under the first task order, Hill will support Metrolink on LinkUs and BNSF projects, key components of the SCORE program.

 

In my new role as Vice President for Hill’s California Rail and Transit Practice, I will continue providing my clients and partners value-added solutions by bringing together the most knowledgeable, diverse, enthusiastic, caring, and hardworking team of experts throughout California.

 

There is also an important geographical aspect to the new position. This promotion to Rail and Transit Practice leader in California will let me consolidate and maintain my own and Hill’s network of transit clients and partners throughout the entire state.

 

In my ongoing assignments, I am working closely with major commuter rail operating agencies such as the Southern California Regional Rail Authority and its member agencies (LACMTA, OCTA, SBCTA, RCTC, and VCTC), cities, and local public agencies, supporting them in the delivery of multi-billion-dollar capital projects.

 

In Northern California, I am supporting the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority on the Zero-Emission Bus (ZEB) implementation plan and the Caltrain Measure B Grade Separation projects. 

 

I am delighted to be a part of Hill’s team, where I can lead the delivery of high-quality professional services to our partners and clients. These services are always important, but they are especially critical now amidst COVID-19, as government agencies and private institutions are working together with project management professionals to keep the public safe.

 

Q: What are your thoughts on leadership?

 

Wherever we are in our lives, we all have our own personal lists of people who have helped us get there. Realizing this, none of us should neglect the importance of giving back in turn to those who come after us. That is, we are all eventually obliged to be leaders in our lives. Whether it involves helping those that are less fortunate or helping the younger generation as they step onto their professional paths, we must remember the importance of giving back. This is what makes the world a better place. Likewise, the importance of being kind to others, regardless of their race, gender, or national background cannot be overstated. I strive to support the younger generation, especially talented young women.

 

During the last 20 years, I have been involved in many organizations such as WTS International (as a mentor), CMAA’s Northern California chapter (as membership chair), and the Railway Association of Southern California (as president) where I have frequently been able to make a positive impact on young professionals.  

 

My drive to support younger generations of project management professionals has often translated to helping young people with their education. Knowledge is power and I believe we need to empower our junior professionals. Even by doing small things, like engaging in discussions about goals and aspirations, leaders are able to pass on some of their experience to their mentees. These simple conversations become catalysts for empowerment. I regularly take the time to speak with new college graduates and tell them that they should not give up, no matter what obstacles they may face.

 

As I have said, I am delighted to be a part of Hill International’s team. Hill is a place where leaders are able to lead, surrounded by such exciting junior talent and responsible for executing important, high-profile work. Moreover, amidst COVID-19, the importance of leadership, cooperation, diversity, and kindness is as high as it has ever been.

 

As you go forth to lead the next generations of project managers, engineers, laborers, financial professionals, teachers, or anyone else, I encourage you to incorporate these values into your leadership techniques and to remember all of those who helped you find your own way in this world.

 

To speak with Mary Toutounchi about your projects or leadership techniques, reach out to her via email at MaryToutounchi@hillintl.com. For more information about Hill, please visit www.hillintl.com.