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Rail News Home Canadian National Railway - CN

March 2007

Rail News: Canadian National Railway - CN

Context by Pat Foran (March 2007)

For the better part of the past five years, a top priority for George Warrington and his New Jersey Transit management team has been to advance work on the years-in-the-making, $7.5 billion Access to the Region’s Core project, as Associate Editor Angela Cotey reports in this month’s cover story. Now, one of the agency’s top priorities is replacing Warrington, who’ll step down as executive director at month’s end.

But replenishing the leadership talent pool doesn’t start with filling the top job. Organizations need leaders at all levels, and nobody recognizes it more acutely than the team at Canadian National Railway Co. Their multi-pronged approach includes “Hunter Camps,” two-and-a-half-day sessions during which President and CEO E. Hunter Harrison imparts his “how we do what we do & why” message to employees who’ve been identified as leadership candidates ("Postcard from Hunter Camp").

Helping Harrison hammer home the message is CN Senior Vice President-People Les Dakens, who details the ABC (Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence) Model of managing performance.
“One of the most powerful tools you have as a leader is knowing how to influence behavior,” Dakens said during a camp held Dec. 4-6, 2006, in West Palm Beach, Fla. “The goal is to take your game up a little bit higher.”To notch it up a rung or two, Dakens offered up his top 10 ABC application tips:

  • Manage your culture. That means promoting a continuous performance improvement culture — which, in part, means shielding employees from that stuff that tends to roll downhill. “The best leaders filter it out,” Dakens said.
  • Measure what you value. And focus on five or six priorities. “That’s about how many most of us can juggle,” he said.
  • Professionals will never agree 100 percent of the time. “At CN, we consider 100 percent of the people ‘professionals’ — they’re all experts — so engage them. People are proud of what they do. Tap every soul, and there can be big rewards for you.”
  • Behavior is what you see or hear. “Less than 2 percent of employee performance issues are due to problems outside the work environment.”
  • If your life depended upon successful behavior, could you perform? Eighty percent of the impact on behavior is from consequences, or the events that follow behavior, Dakens said. Ask yourself: If an employee’s life depended on it, could he/she do a better job? If so, apply consequences, such as giving positive or negative feedback. If not, apply antecedents, or things that prompt behavior, such as verbal directions or written orders.
  • Transition from good performance to great performance. For organizations, a benchmark is 15 years of continuous improvement. CN’s at 11 and counting, Dakens said: “Hunter’s biggest challenge is keeping you focused on being great.”
  • Deal quickly with chronic poor performers. “Apply negative consequences forcefully and immediately, or you lose credibility with other employees, who all know what’s going on. If you don’t act, you’re condoning the conduct.”
  • Verbal feedback is critical to influencing behaviors. “Eyeball-to-eyeball feedback is critical — good or bad, it’s hard for them to miss. It’s also a lost art.”
  • Balance your use of consequences. “Give them four positives to one constructive. If 90 to 95 percent of our people are doing a good job, why wouldn’t you?”
  • Manage the learning curve for new tasks. “For new employees, a supervisor has to get into teach-and-tell mode right away. With experienced employees, it might require stroking and providing autonomy, which implies trust.”
And if leaders can do a good job answering these four questions from direct reports — “Why do we have to change/why can’t we stay here? What does the “new world” look like/what is success? What do you expect of me/how will you measure me? What’s in it for me?” — they’ll “take the change-related anxiety level down quite a bit,” Dakens said.

They’ll also be doing their part to help lead the organization to the next level.



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