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By Pat Foran, Editor
After spending 10 years as a human resources executive with H.J. Heinz & Co., Les Dakens joined CN in 2001 as senior vice president of people. During his interviews with the railroad’s leadership team, Dakens met Hunter Harrison, then CN’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
“My first impression of Hunter was that he was a real operations guy — he knew the business inside out,” says Dakens, who retired from CN in 2008. “And initially, he was a little rough and gruff.”
Dakens quickly learned there was a lot more to Harrison, who died last month due to complications from an illness.
“During my first few months at CN, we spent time together and developed a friendship, and respect,” he says. “The rough and gruff went away.”
Of course, Harrison’s trademark intensity never did. He routinely embraced change and cast conventional wisdom aside. And he did things his way.
“Hunter was a true legend,” Dakens says. “Think about a football player like Tom Brady or a hockey player like Wayne Gretzky. They just were so much better than the rest of the players. Hunter was naturally gifted like that.”
Harrison also knew how to lead, says Dakens. He knew how to solve problems and he relished teaching others how to solve them.
“That was one of the unique things about him,” Dakens says.
His sheer relentlessness also set him apart. So did his oratorial style, which Harrison himself likened to a preacher’s.
“Sometimes what it takes is to shake people into doing the right thing,” as Harrison put it.
“His bark was worse than his bite,” Dakens says. “But if he did have to bite you, you knew it.”
I met Hunter in the late 1990s and interviewed him many times. I watched him command a room at Hunter Camp, where he imparted his “how we work and why” message to CN employees who were considered leadership candidates. I saw him empathize, I saw him teach, I heard him preach, I heard him bark. In 2009, I presented him with our inaugural Railroad Innovator Award and I heard him speak from the heart. At every turn, I saw a difference-making talent striving to make a significant difference. And at every turn, he did.
In 2009, Harrison — who at the time announced he would retire from CN — told me he knew many people figured he’d fail at retirement. He didn’t fail. He never retired, to the surprise, I imagine, of none of his friends. Dakens included.
A year or so ago, Dakens asked a former colleague to let him know if Harrison, then at CP, ever began to talk about hanging it up. Dakens currently is partner and managing director of My Next Season Canada, a firm that helps retiring executives transition to what’s next (i.e., “their next season”).
“Hunter never had a chance to retire,” Dakens says. “But he went out on top.”