January 19, 2009
Trump the Slump! Top 10 Steps to Fight Back
By Aaron Weinstein
APTA Marketing and Communications Committee
Department Manager, Marketing and Research
San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District
OK, financial support is down 15 percent and you have 20 percent more riders to accommodate. If you’re a public transit manager facing this kind of scenario, you’re not alone. And, unfortunately, things are going to get worse before they get better….
So what to do? You have two choices:
Option A: Hide under your desk and wait it out, or
Option B: Retool anything and everything to become more efficient and more customer-focused.
If you do decide to risk crawling out from under your desk, here are 10 ideas on how to trump the economic slump.
Declare a fiscal emergency. Transit professionals who have lived through earthquakes, hurricanes, or terrorist attacks know that people come together during emergencies to do great things. Sometimes an emergency is just what the doctor ordered to tackle antiquated work rules, unproductive service, or performance problems. Your organization won’t know it’s an emergency, though, unless you declare it. They await your signal to spring into action.
Engage staff at all levels. In large organizations, communication can be spotty. Communicate directly with staff at all levels, and engage them to find efficiencies and better ways to serve the customer. Many of their “global” suggestions may be off the mark because staff lack adequate information, but their “local” suggestions will give you insight into areas where you lack the data. You’ll be amazed at the problem-solving skills your employees show you when you bother to ask. Record and respond to each idea, identify the few best to implement, and thank everyone for their help.
Line item budget. Ultimately, finding savings is hard work, and there’s no substitute for a budget that delineates expenditures right down to each purchase. That’s too much detail for most CEOs to digest, so delegate the detail to your lieutenants and focus on areas with the biggest potential for savings. Since most of your costs are labor, consider creating a line-item position budget, too. Focus on positions charged with process/compliance versus those that provide tangible services to the public (see “Eliminate red tape,” next).
Eliminate red tape. Map out your hiring, purchasing, and other processes, and eliminate steps that aren’t absolutely necessary. There’s nothing like a crisis to break through barriers to streamlining work (plus your team will thank you immensely!).
Reward savings and efficiencies. Establish an organization-wide goal for savings, and reward everyone if the goal is met. A crisis will only motivate your staff for a few months, while organization-wide rewards will sustain motivation for the length of the crisis (could be a few years, folks).
Share the pain. We all know that cutting perks won’t do much for the budget, but consider the symbolic value to employees and customers. You won’t successfully lead the charge unless you have your troops behind you. Show that you’re personally committed to sharing the pain, whether it be spending a day in the trenches or foregoing perks (except APTA travel, of course).
Focus on the customer. Customer focus is often the first casualty during a fiscal crisis. Appoint a customer advocate for the budget process, and make sure that voice is heard. Cutting services and raising fares may ultimately be necessary, but try to avoid the classic downward spiral …
Beware of “opportunities.” With federal stimulus spending imminent, beware of projects that will saddle your agency with operating costs for years to come. Expansion is great, but press stakeholders for a firm commitment to fund the operation. The stimulus opportunity can put you in the driver’s seat, but only if you act now. Of course, you could instead invest only in projects that create operating efficiencies, but that might not be too popular, would it?
Management 101. Organizational change can be complex and overwhelming. To allow you to focus on substantive issues, appoint someone to manage the process; get the right people at the table for each decision; and establish objectives, timetables, and metrics for every measure you take.
Communicate, communicate, communicate (because you know you’ll regret it if you don’t). Tap your communication professionals to craft the message and media to reach every constituency, including employees; customers; funding agencies; and businesses. Remember communication is a two-way street. Schedule regular check-ins to hear what stakeholders are saying to avoid surprises.
In summary, it’s easy to lead during an upturn when there’s plenty of money to keep everyone happy and nothing needs to change. But what we choose to do during a downturn? That’s a true test of leadership.