Helena Williams isn’t just the president of the Long Island Rail Road—she’s also a client.
Taking the train to work each day has helped Williams stay current with the needs and concerns of her fellow riders and LIRR employees. Still, she is careful not to seek any special treatment.
“The conductors know who I am immediately, but I always show my pass … because I don’t want other customers to think that the conductor has waved somebody through,” Williams explained. “The conductors are wonderful, because they never give away that they know me. They kind of nod as I show my pass [and say], ‘How are you today?’ They don’t want to put me in a position where I’m not just enjoying my own train ride.”
Over nearly six years at the helm of the LIRR, Williams has aimed to modernize the 178-year-old railroad. “My vision is for more track capacity, more current infrastructure, microprocessing in our switches, better communication,” Williams said. “The hallmark of my five years has been to really emphasize the way we communicate with customers.”
Prior to joining the LIRR, Williams, a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law, spent 13 years working for Long Island Bus, eventually becoming its president. She also served as deputy county executive of Nassau County and later as senior counsel at Cablevision.
Though she is the first female president in the LIRR’s long history and a rare woman transit leader in a traditionally male-dominated field, Williams said that her milestone has not influenced the way she is treated by her colleagues. “The workforce here is terrific,” Williams said. “I have over 6,000 employees, and they don’t really care—male, female—all they care about is, ‘Can you get the job done?’ ”
Despite this reaction, Williams says she does think being a woman makes her different as a leader. “One of the advantages can be that sometimes you just do look at some issues from a different perspective. A lot of people would say I’m very detail-oriented. I’m not sure if that’s my feminine side, or just my managerial skill.”