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— by Pat Foran, editor
He was a customer-focused leader who believed — knew — that every link in the Union Pacific Railroad chain had a role to play in the Class I's success. He knew, too, how critical it was that UP employees recognized how vital they were. Accordingly, he kept his railroaders engaged, cultivating a culture that nurtured communication and prized teamwork. The spotlight? Don't even think about turning it in his direction — shine it on the team, he'd say. His unfailing faith in his colleagues and customers, along with an unwavering belief that they all were building something together, are but a couple of the gifts Jim Young has left behind. The former UP chairman and CEO died Feb. 15 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Young was 61.
"He was as clear on the subject — that this was always about the railroad and never about him — as anybody I've seen," says UP Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations Bob Turner, a close friend of Young's who joined the railroad in 2000.
Saying "It's about the company" is one thing, and many CEOs say it. Young said it and lived it, Turner says.
"As a leader, it established credibility," he says. "It also motivated people."
So did Young's desire to connect with employees. He began hosting town hall meetings after he was named president in 2004. At first, questions were personal — "'I can't get service from crew management' or concerns about health care," Turner says. Fast forward a couple years, and the questions became bigger-picture oriented: What's going on at the STB? What's happening with the business in Mexico? Young's interest in what employees were thinking about was genuine, and that resonated, Turner says.
"It was the notion that we're really all in this together," Turner says. "Jim believed in building America, and he talked about it and made it real."
Young talked about it with me in September 2012; I was writing a story about him after he consented to receive our Railroad Innovator Award. He may have been a bit uncomfortable (the spotlight, etc.), but he couldn't have been more engaging or gracious — or more clear about who the real award winners were: He said he'd accept it on behalf of all Union Pacific employees.
On medical leave at that time, Young said the biggest thing he missed was employee engagement. It worked both ways, of course; employees missed him, too. But the seeds had been sown. Engagement is embedded in the UP culture. More and more employees know they have a role to play; they know how vital they are. Jim Young made sure of it.