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October 26, 2009

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MORE FROM THE 2009 APTA ANNUAL MEETING

Chief Executives Share Lessons Learned from Turbulent Times
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

“These have been some of the best of times and they have also been some of the most challenging times.” With those words, moderator Beverly A. Scott, Ph.D., general manager/chief executive officer, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, and APTA’s immediate past chair, opened the session on “Steering Agencies Through Turbulent Times,” held Oct. 5 in Orlando.

“Hopefully there will be ideas that come up that make you say: ‘Gee, I’m glad I came to this session,’” Scott said before introducing the presenters who would talk about “how to continue to inspire your organization and continue to keep your organization focused and keep it forward.”

The first presenter was Mark R. Aesch, chief executive officer of the Rochester Genesee [NY] Regional Transportation Authority (RGRTA), who began by noting that, in 2008, ridership on his system was its highest while fares were at their lowest. How did the agency accomplish this?

RGRTA engineered a “very sophisticated” multi-year financial tool to see where it will sit in the future, he explained—making decisions today that will help determine the position of the system five years from now. It also has a predictive tool related to its customers, which should enable the agency to retain its reduced fares for the next three years.

“If there’s one piece of counsel I’d offer, it’s to really focus on building quality information systems so, rather than tell how you’re performing today, which is reactive, you have predictive models, so you can position yourself for the years ahead,” Aesch said.

He then provided a bad news/good news set of observations. Concerning bad news, “if your agency is starting to go through a difficult time, you’d better get used to it,” Aesch said. But the good news is, “if you approach turbulence with the challenges it represents, there’s no doubt you can make your agency better. Because you don’t manage turbulence, you lead. You don’t curl up in the bunker. That’s the time you need to be reliable and accessible and consistent in your message,” he continued.

Honesty is the best policy, he emphasized, telling session participants to be truthful about their information. “When it became apparent we had to lay folks off, I wouldn’t say that everything would be OK,” he said, adding: “The more control you can give your employees, even in relatively small ways, the better off you’ll be.”

Stating that he wasn’t known for being particularly religious, Aesch nonetheless has memorized the Serenity Prayer. He recited the prayer to rueful laughter: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

He closed by noting: “We are the targets—don’t take it personally. That doesn’t mean you have to like it, but you do have to accept it. Turbulence and those types of challenges can bring out the best in an organization. If you want to see your leaders shine, you should look forward to turbulence. It’s a good way to separate your true leaders from those who are just hanging around.”

Aesch wasn’t the only presenter who observed that negative situations could produce positive actions. “Some of the best I’ve ever been has been in times of turbulence,” said Stephen G. Bland, chief executive officer of Pittsburgh’s Port Authority of Allegheny County. “It gives you an opportunity to become sharp, to build your skills, to build camaraderie.”

When a system encounters problems—regardless of whether the cause is internal (such as employee issues or accidents) or external (such as delays because of bad weather or withheld funding)—the media will nonetheless either ask, or, in some cases, demand responses.

Bland noted that his agency has seen some of its highest returns in media training—putting people on camera. “It’s valuable not just for the TV presence for your agency, but being able to get up in front of your employees,” he said.

Sometimes, he added, if something works well, you should maintain that routine. For example, he said: “We found that our police chief was a very good communicator so, whenever it’s a police action, he goes before the camera … and you can’t beat a guy in uniform.”

Gary C. Thomas, president/executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit and APTA vice chair-rail transit, spoke next about overseeing the largest public transportation expansion project in the country. People in Dallas understood that construction prices were “off the charts,” Thomas said, but when the project wasn’t completed on time, “we had busloads of people showing up at meetings to express their concerns about the delays … because there’s such a pent-up demand for public transportation in our region.”

To cope with those kinds of problems, he said, there’s the need to ensure that “the people on the bus feel comfortable to talk to you, to have that open dialogue so they can have that honest conversation with you—and together we start to formulate the solutions for how to move forward.”

Thomas added: “It’s about consistency, making sure you stay level. Don’t let them see you sweat. You’ve got to stay constant, focused—because everyone is watching you as a leader to see how you’re going to react.”

He stressed that working through turbulent times also includes having “faith in the people around you. Make sure you have complete confidence in the people, listen to what they have to say, and work as a team.” To ensure that he hears from his employees directly, he meets twice a quarter with a random group of 17-18 of them, conveying to them that “it takes every one of us doing what we do to get the job done.”

The last presenter was John B. Catoe Jr., general manager, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and chair of Leadership APTA. “In the beginning of June,” he began, “we were finishing up our budget in troubled financial times. Then, on June 22, I was notified of a train accident beyond anything I could have imagined.”

In describing those very difficult times, Catoe said: “Our days felt darker than the darkest nights. You felt that you could not see the light. But during those times, you must find the light in the darkness ... and stick to the principles you’ve always believed in: accountability and the ability to communicate.”

He noted that, when faced with the kind of adversity the June 22 incident provided, “you become the face of the system to reassure the public about its safety.” Further, he said: “When morale of the employees is at their lowest, that’s when you must be at your highest.”

Catoe stressed the importance of communicating with the agency’s board of directors every day during times of crisis, as well as with employees “to reassure them to continue to focus,” and with the media.

“It is the defining moment of the organization for how employees will react to a crisis,” he said, adding that over his decades of experience “I learned from the worst managers what not to do.”

In closing, Scott spoke of the importance of not only being positive but projecting a positive image. “When times are really challenging,” she said, “I cannot say how much your people—and your customers, too—will take their energy from you.” She then asked the panelists for “one more reflection—say anything.”

“Sometimes in our industry we tend to look inward and talk about how difficult it is, but it’s difficult in every industry,” said Aesch. “Be optimistic, and work to chart a path—rather than saying ‘woe is me, this is hard,’ figure out how to realize your vision.”

Clarity, Bland noted, is key: “When we can get the message right, that’s the most important thing we can do.”

Thomas advised being “true to yourself, making the best decisions you can based on the information you have at the time, and having the best team.”

Catoe reiterated the need to focus on the core mission, “what you’re there for. For the Washington region, if we’re not there, it will shut down.” He further advised: “Understand that crises will arise; make sure that you’re prepared as best as you can to respond to those. We find ways to overcome the adversities, and then we move forward.”

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