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— by Robert J. Derocher
When the American Association of Railroad Superintendents (AARS) holds its 118th annual meeting in September, session topics will reflect the organization's core mission — to develop managers as they rise through the ranks. "Everything from leadership and the best practices of management teams, to bringing in new hires, company culture, decision processes and socialization will be discussed," AARS Executive Director Carrie Foor says of the meeting, to be held Sept. 14-16 at the Union League Club in Chicago. "It's knowledge that you can't find in a book or manual."
It's also knowledge that the rail industry needs to cultivate. The industry's at a critical juncture, with institutional knowledge sitting at the crossroads between aging veteran leaders and younger managers eager to put their often-superior technological know-how to the test.
As a result, finding and nurturing newer managers and having them work with — and learn from — their more experienced bosses has become a higher priority for freight and passenger railroads, particularly as older managers get closer to retirement. It's certainly top-of-mind for the leadership at the 133-year-old AARS, which counts managers from Class Is, short lines and commuter railroads among its members.
When Foor arrived at the AARS more than five years ago, the organization's twice-a-year meetings were like many other rail-industry association conferences — typically, they featured industry updates and trends provided by a variety of speakers. At a 2009 AARS meeting, former CSX Corp. Chief Operating Officer Tony Ingram sounded the alarm regarding the industry's slow embrace of managerial transition and knowledge transfer. Around that same time, Foor began hearing similar concerns from younger AARS members.
"They wanted to be prepared more as they moved into new roles," she says. "The feeling was that you just can't dump people into management roles."
Working with a board of officers and directors, Foor began introducing changes to AARS meetings and goals, culminating in this year's September gathering.
"We believe this is a systemic issue. Every single railroad is faced with this. We have a lot of people who have left our industry, or are planning to leave in the next few years," says Mike Sherlock, deputy general manager for Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and second vice president of AARS. "We've developed panel discussions at the last two AARS meetings to attack this issue. We need to talk about this."
Planned sessions for the September conference include "Managing Safety Programs"; "Managing the Process: Managing New People"; and "Leadership Through Cultural Change." [Editor's note: The AARS annual meeting will be held in conjunction with Progressive Railroading's Rising Stars Award Dinner, to be held Sept. 14 at the Union League Club in Chicago.]
AARS affords a "good avenue" to share experiences, says Steve Hoye, superintendent for the Belt Railway of Chicago's Chicago Transportation Coordination Office and AARS' third VP. "You can learn a lot from talking to people," he says.
Some of the talk needs to be taking place between manager and would-be manager, and increasingly, it is, Sherlock and Hoye say. Often, the first step toward productive communication — and knowledge transfer — is for current rail management to realize that times have changed.
"Before, if somebody wanted something done, they'd yell at you to do it," says Sherlock, a 34-year railroad veteran. "Now, we've learned to be more in tune with treating people the right way, making sure we're getting buy-in from them. We do a lot of coaching and mentoring. You can never talk to people enough."
Mike Paras, the Belt Railway's general manager of transportation and a frequent AARS presenter, says he usually gives his managers "an opportunity to vent" each quarter about issues and challenges they face and ways to solve them.
"We say that it's OK to have robust dialogue," he says.
Methods of finding — and grooming — managers also are changing. It's becoming rare, Sherlock says, to find new managers who took the leadership path he took: starting in the field as a block operator, followed by gradual increases into management positions.
"Before, you couldn't apply for a promotion until you worked several years in a position," Paras adds. "You knocked on the door for a while and said you wanted to get promoted."
But for Paras, who last year received the AARS Lantern Award for Leadership, that approach might not work best in an era when potential new managers have multiple college degrees, advanced computer skills, and other skills and training. He recently promoted someone to a new management post after the rising star spent just six months in his previous position. "I've thrown all that previous thinking out the window," Paras says. "Today's new managers want more, and they don't want to wait. They haven't learned all of the railroad yet, but they will."
Often, field managers aren't solely responsible for finding next-generation leaders. At Amtrak, a talent acquisition department works closely with them in the hiring process. And they're getting more scientific in their approach. "We are hiring people with skills and a behavioral-type background that allows them to be successful," Sherlock says. "For example, what commitment and behavior does a road foreman need to succeed?"
But along with those so-called "soft skills," candidates still need to demonstrate eagerness and ability, combined with a hands-on management approach, Hoye says.
"When you're out there talking with the crews and you have the tools in hand to show them what you're saying, it really works out well. Showing them is always better than books," he says. "It's our job to help them understand why they do things ... and to help them succeed."
That's been part and parcel of railroad training programs, which remain a staple in the management identification and training process at Class Is, as well as at many short lines and passenger roads. At Union Pacific Railroad, nearly all new operating managers graduate from the Operations Management Training program, a 10-month curriculum designed to provide leadership, management and technical education, along with field training supported by an assigned coach, says Dina Tilgner, UP's assistant VP of human resources training and development.
While hands-on leadership is important, UP's operating department lists six "leadership competencies" it wants to see in managers: change management, decision-making, handling adversity, managing conflict, developing relationships and influence, and team leadership/teaching, Tilgner says.
Meanwhile, Genesee & Wyoming Inc. railroads want managers who "focus on safety [and have] the ability to lead and motivate people, which includes integrity [and] the entrepreneurial mindset that makes our short-line railroads successful," says Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Ellen Russell.
But one of the cornerstones of management/leadership that railroads can instill in newer managers, whether it's in a classroom or a train yard, is the development and promotion of a culture that reflects a company's values and goals.
At UP, it is known as The UP Way, "which engages all employees to continuously improve safety, service and productivity by providing the methods, tools and processes to standardize work, eliminate variability and waste, and solve problems at their root cause," Tilgner says.
A consistent message that stresses safety, leadership and teamwork also is key to a successful culture, Paras says. At the Belt Railway, management values safety and leadership through positive reinforcement and communication, he says. "It takes years. It's not going to happen overnight," Paras adds. "We work diligently to make our culture go where we want it to go."
Buy-in from top management — buy-in that employees can see — is key. "We were not focused enough on results. We only worked on getting by, day by day," Sherlock says of the culture at Amtrak before Joseph Boardman took over as president and CEO in 2008. "Now, we're focused on results. We're focused on numbers. Our board and our CEO are there to support us."
Ensuring the support is there over the long haul is critical. For AARS, the next step is keeping the conversation going beyond a once-a-year meeting — and beyond the organization.
"How do we help our members make connections? How do we develop online communities? How do we work with other railroad organizations?" Foor says. "The industry, as a whole, benefits, because the right people are meeting [in September] at the right time. I feel like the outlook is good."
Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, N.Y.-based freelance writer. Email comments or questions to email@example.com.