Veronica O. Davis could be a poster child for work-life balance: She stays busy with an amazing array of projects but knows when to say when.
She has to. If she didn’t, she could easily morph into a poster child for overworked, overwhelmed, stressed-out wrecks everywhere.
Meet City of Houston Director of Transportation and Drainage Operations Veronica O. Davis, a self-described transportation nerd. She is also an author, community activist, civil engineer, urban planner, world wonderer, yogi, foodie, COH employee, wife, and mother.
One thing she is not is an overworked, overwhelmed, stressed-out wreck.
The key is work-life balance. And she has a few things to say about how crucial that is.
Work-life balance can be described in different ways: For some it may be leaving work at work, for others it's having a fulfilling hobby that harmonizes work life with personal time, or it may be setting healthy boundaries to spend quality time with loved ones.
But what happens when the passion that drives your life is also the reason to go to work? How do you make a separation between work and life and stay in balance?
Davis has some experience balancing these conflicting interests.
Born for this
Davis describes herself as an extroverted engineer for whom transportation and helping others are simply part of her DNA. In fact, she was almost born in the U.S. Department of Transportation building. She is a third-generation transportation professional. It started with her grandparents and their cab company in North Carolina. Then her dad became a civil engineer and worked for the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, a precursor to the Federal Transit Administration. Not to be left out, her mom worked in human resources for New York City Transit.
For the past two and a half years, Davis’ job has been to keep things moving for HPW, leading 900 employees and serving 2.3 million Houstonians, overseeing transportation and drainage infrastructure. It’s a massive undertaking involving 16,000 lane miles of roadways, 2,500 traffic signals, 1,370 bridges, 3,900 miles of stormwater lines, 2,800 miles of roadside ditches, and over 1 million traffic signs.
Apart from leading her division, she has an emergency management function that requires her attention almost 24/7. And finally, she is also in charge of the Next Day Potholes and the Street Rehabilitation Initiative, two of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s signature programs.
Prioritize and organize
With so many competing professional and personal interests and obligations, Davis has to identify and commit to what’s most important in her life. Organization and discipline make it work.
So, what is Davis’ secret formula for being successful at work, reaching personal achievements, helping others, and spending quality time with her family?
When it comes to work-life balance, she says: “It’s understanding what is more important. It’s how you prioritize. Starting every day, if I get nothing else done today, what are three things I have to focus on and get done.”
Private and family life don’t take a back seat to anything.
“I have very strict boundaries for certain things,” Davis said. “I have a small child and when it comes to things at her school — her recitals — I mark them on my calendar, and to me, it's not negotiable to not attend."
“Another piece of life balance, particularly being a woman leader, is having a spouse who is an equal contributor in the household,” she said.
Davis recognizes the importance of “having a really great partner,” as she describes her husband. She said she is fortunate to have found in her husband someone who brings and offers support and care as needed, instead of simply dividing the chores.
Also, Davis is not afraid to ask for help when needed. In fact, she sees it as vital to what calls outsourcing parts of her life.
“I have a cleaning person and I recognize that’s an expense and a luxury for some people, but I can spend all Saturday cleaning, or I can spend that time with my family,” she said. “To me, it’s less balance and more boundaries.”
Davis said when she goes on vacation, she doesn’t take much with her — except boundaries.
“And that’s a boundary of, I am away and that is my time to decompress and be with my family and friends.”
She also tries to reinforce this boundary with her employees, especially those who don’t like taking time off, even suggesting adding it to their HEAR plan.
Her intention is not to push employees to go out on vacation and travel — she says it could even be a “staycation” — but it’s about having time away and being disconnected from work understanding that while you are out, the team will be OK and will handle any situation that comes up.
Pause, rest, recharge
Saving the best for the end, Davis emphasized the importance of being intentional about downtime. “Rest is resistance,” she says, explaining the cycle of periods of push and periods of rest. Davis says it’s easy to fall into the habit of over-subscribing to commitments and ending up feeling overwhelmed, instead of saying no or offering an alternative solution when possible. For her, “no” can be a complete sentence.
Davis says she is driven by passion and describes her biggest passion as people and the positive impact she can bring to them. Her position with HPW affords her the chance to make decisions to improve the lives of Houstonians and visitors to the city.
She says she is lucky to work on her passion, but once you get to know Davis, you can easily see that everything she does is with passion. She always remembers a professor at Cornell University saying, “Do what you love.”
That is the foundation of Davis’ advice for all City of Houston employees:
- Think about your life and see how you spend your time. If it isn’t bringing you joy, why are you doing it? What are the important things for you and what brings you joy?
- Find your rest. It doesn’t matter what it looks like — it may be going on vacation, being in silence, not doing anything, or going for a walk — but make sure to be very intentional about it.
- Set your own healthy boundaries and stick to them. These boundaries may be different for everyone, and they may also depend on responsibility and possibilities. But we should all have them.
Veronica O. Davis has been paving the way for inclusive public transportation for quite a while now, but she may also be paving the way for a perfect work-life balance, without even knowing it.