Transit CEO Interview Series: John Catoe, Jr.
We recently sat down with John Catoe, Jr. the former general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to learn more about his perspectives on employee engagement, leadership, and creating an unshakeable company culture.
For over three decades John B. Catoe, Jr. has contributed greatly to the extension and enhancement of public transportation offerings throughout the U.S.
He has remained tireless in his efforts to raise transit awareness, secure governmental funding, and invest in local communities. As such, under his leadership, improvements to transportation infrastructures have been realized, transit services now reach more areas and serve greater numbers of passengers, and fiscal responsibility has been restored.
Named Outstanding Public Transportation Manager in 2009 by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Catoe made national headlines for orchestrating and executing safe, efficient, and reliable public transportation offerings to and from the 56th presidential inauguration events. Then serving as the General Manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), Catoe heeded President Obama's call to make these events the most open and accessible in history, opening METRO services to include 23 special rapid bus corridors and extended rush hour service running for 17 continuous hours.
Catoe served as the general manager for WMATA from 2007 through 2010, holding oversight of a $2 billion budget and more than ten thousand employees. During his tenure, he developed plans and secured funding for capital improvements to infrastructure, while reducing administrative costs. Prior to his post at WMATA, Catoe served as the Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) from 2001 through 2007. Under Catoe's leadership, Metro's operating costs tracked lower than the consumer price index for the first time in two decades. Of particular focus was Catoe's work with five Los Angeles County Councils of Governments to restructure bus operations into service sectors, thus better serving the community while containing
Those of us at Insight Strategies know John John as a mentor, a man of immense integrity and we hope, a friend.
The aim of these interviews is simple enough. Ask the leaders in transit and transportation to speak candidly about what they have learned, how they learned it, and in some cases, what they would have liked to have known earlier in their careers. It is about understanding the personal leadership and maturation process itself. Think of it as a sneak peek into the wisdom that can only come from time and reflection of what was absorbed by these men and women in that time. We, Insight Strategies, hope the lessons they have learned will serve our readers in their own careers and, in doing so, their lives.
Kevin: Is this a good idea, John? Would you have liked to hear from Seniors Managers and GM's as you were coming up?
John: Absolutely. It's a recounting of history that answers the questions of "How did we get where we are?" and "How did we deal with the myriad issues that would pop up?" I'm not aware of a management book that deals with key transit management issues and how leaders in that industry deal with adversity. I think this transit leadership series is a good idea.
Kevin: John, it is one thing to be fired up when you're 30 years old and you've taken on your first real leadership position. In your case, how does one fire himself up and go after it when they're 50?
John: Actually, it's a lot easier. When you're 30, you're trying to learn and figure things out, you haven't really mastered the whole political process. You understand the finances, but you're still getting your feet wet in managing the organization. So as you get older you have a broader perspective that is far more politically complex and you only get that through experience. You can read all the books you want to read, go to all the lectures you want to, but nothing prepares you the way real life experience does. At 50 you say, "I've been there, I've done that, and now I want to take on something larger." Now, this doesn't mean you're going to do it right all the time and it doesn't mean you won't make mistakes. But, you know enough about how to back your way out of a corner to make things work for the greater good.
Kevin: If you were to define one single thing you can do as a GM that genuinely affects culture down to the driver, mechanic, bus washer, what is that ONE THING?
John: Stephen Covey and Tom Peters used to say decades ago: "You have to manage by walking around." You interact with employees at all levels in formal and informal situations. Talk to them about what they're doing, what the agency is doing, how important it is for them to do their job, what it means for the region, for the customers. It's important to show your personal commitment to them. It's 1-on-1, group meetings with employees where you can talk candidly, trade ideas, and simply listen. By doing this, you can deal better when a crisis occurs because you have their input of what's happening in all parts of the organization. Keep in mind that your employees like to get updates on what's happening in the organization and what's coming up. Nothing beats that interaction. Meet with your drivers – it's easy to go out between 8am to 5pm, but you'll gain the greatest respect if you meet with them early. Think of showing up between 4am-5am, which is when the operators get in. Or, perhaps after midnight when the mechanics come in for the late shift. They'll truly appreciate your sacrifice, your commitment, and your passion. You also need to communicate that you expect the same from them.
Kevin: What advice would you give a young person who wants to further develop themselves and move up?
John: If I see a young person that has lots of talent, lots of drive, whom I think (or who tells me) they want to be a GM or a top executive within transit, I'm going to remember them. I am going to do whatever I can to make sure that they're in the job that helps the agency and helps develop them. That's talent I don't want to lose. If someone approaches me like that, I'm going to snatch them up and put them in a special development program. I call these individuals "champions." These are the people who are very talented and driven. They are the ones I would put in charge of special projects that are completely outside their area of expertise because they have the ability to get things done. I would place them in positions that really stretched them, stretched their knowledge, but are all still within their abilities. As a result, you have great employees who are very loyal to the organization because someone cares about them and recognizes their abilities. And, the organization gains because it takes its internal talent and places it in a position of long term leadership for the authority. What I mean by that is, if you see talent and you start developing it, you'll have that talent for a long time in the organization. Sometimes you lose people because they'll go to another organization for a higher position if those positions aren't open in your organization. But, that's good because you're developing leaders for the industry. In addition, the reputation gets communicated that you are an agency that cares about its employees and their development. So, then even more talented people want to come to your agency. If I can't take someone personally under my wing, I find someone high up to mentor them.
Kevin: What advice did you get or wish you had gotten early in your career?
John: I got some great advice early in my career. James Reichart, who was the GM of OCTD (Orange County Transit District) back in the 70s always talked about "values" and how it's those organizational values that make it successful. And, he kept drilling that into me. He would teach it and have speakers come out to speak to the management team. I started "drinking the Kool-Aid" because it resonated with me. You can't learn too early about the value in respecting your people, developing your people, personal accountability, excellence, quality service, and safety. Mainly the soft skills involved in working well with people and focusing on values. That impacted me tremendously. Around the same time period, I got feedback from a board member that my strength was creating a positive work environment, while developing and respecting people. So hearing that, I emphasized that aspect of my behavior.
Insights from Insight: Isn't is funny how it's now considered "new thinking" to determine one's strengths as John did, and to emphasize them versus always fixing perceived weaknesses? My only caveat to that is that strengths are only strengths if they are considered such by the organization itself. Same goes for weaknesses. While it is important to understand your strengths and weaknesses, it is critical that you understand them within the context of what your team, group, and company needs from you.
John: Yes, that's what you're hearing. The weakness I remember Jim telling me once was "Smile more when you speak." I'm serious.
Kevin: John, if someone were to ask you, "What questions should I be asking from where you sit?" what would they be?
John: What skill sets do I need to develop in order to manage a complex organization like a transit agency? And, what can I do to develop those skills? And, generally I'm looking for that person to tell me they would like to take on responsibility in an area or in a task that will help them develop those skills. One might say communication skills are important – but communicating specifically to an elected board. How do you do that? How do you handle that? How do you handle adversity? How do you handle negative things that happen? How do you handle the press? How do you handle all the balls that are up in the air? Those are the kind of questions to be asking. Ask me for examples of things I've done which, if I could go back in time, I would do differently. When we make decisions in our careers, sometimes we make some pretty damn dumb ones. As a leader we have to take risks. If we don't try new things, we won't be successful. And, sometimes when you try new things, they don't work well. I would expect someone to ask me what went wrong and not just what went right. Ask me what I did to turn the situation around. Ask me how I turned that lemon into lemonade.
Kevin: Do you have a favorite quote or philosophy on leadership and development that you tend to go back to?
John: Yes, I remember Steven Covey – I've always liked him and I know that's old school. For me it's basically about the emotional bank account. You know you can fill up that bank account, but you have to use the contents very wisely. I think he gave the example of a person who came in firing a 6 shooter and how it's all about timing and choosing when to give out your opinion to someone who you think can truly benefit from it -- even though it may not be the flavor of the day. If you're a person who constantly criticizes and says "That's not going to work" or "No, that's not the way," then people aren't going to listen to you. But, if you're a person who is supportive and says things like, "Have you thought about this approach?" then people listen. People will take what you say into consideration. Don't keep firing off at the mouth. Give input, give differing opinions selectively. This way you're not perceived as a person who just criticizes everything. People stop listening to those that do this. (See Covey, Emotional Bank Account)
Covey identifies six ways to make deposits (or reduce withdrawals) into one's emotional bank account:
1) Understanding The Individual. This means listening intently to what the other person is saying and empathizing with how they may feel. It's important to care for others and act with kindness toward them.
2) Keeping Commitments. How do you feel when someone arrives right on time when you have a meeting? How about when people simply do what they say they will do? You build up an emotional reserve by keeping your commitments.
3) Clarifying Expectations. We are not mind readers, and yet we consistently expect others to know what we expect of them. Communicating our expectations can help create a higher level of trust. When we ask for what we want, and we get it, we can them trust a little more.
4) Attending To The Little Things. Don't you find that the little things tend to become the BIG things when they do not receive our attention? Doing the little things is how we honor and show respect for others. Small kindnesses, a smile, a little extra effort, a hug, doing something you didn't "have" to -- these are the things that build trust.
5) Showing Personal Integrity. Integrity is the moral floor upon which trusting relationships are built. When we operate with sound moral character, it makes it so easy for others to trust us.
6) Apologizing When We Make A Withdrawal. We will make mistakes; it's part of life. But, when you see you have violated a trust, sincerely apologizing is how we make a deposit to counteract the damage we have done.
In a managerial move upwards, we find leaders who are not fully prepared for what awaits. How could they be? While there are many philosophies floating around of how to move upwards, each individual, coupled with the unique circumstances of the persons, places, and things involved in that move create limitless challenges. Think of a fresh supervisor with no training or experience. How would he or she know to be aware of resentments, of the shifting from being a peer to being accountable for your peers? It's a big leap. Most don't make it. This one simple example is really not that different than the newer GM--fired up, ready to roll, finally able to do it their way--only to find that it is a misnomer. The GM at the top of a transit property has more bosses than ever. City council, boards, assemblies, and Mayors are all stakeholders in the success or failure of the GM's actions and consequently VERY interested in how she or he does their job. John speaks well to the facility needed to manage those complex relationships. Truly something difficult to learn without having been there.
His understanding that we all have KPI's is phenomenal. These key performance measurements are honorable and clearly important. Buses need to roll. But, the great ones, those GM's that leave a lasting legacy to their agencies and the many people who they impact spend as much time on the people aspect, the human KPI's, as any other part of their work.