Transit CEO Interview Series: Kenneth McDonald
We recently sat down with Kenneth McDonald the CEO of California's Long Beach Transit authority to learn more about his perspectives on employee engagement, leadership, and creating an unbeatable company culture.
Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, McDonald moved to Georgia to attend Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's in technology management.
He found his passion for transit at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, where he spent 20 years learning the business, eventually becoming the agency's assistant general manager of operations. He was in charge of railcar maintenance and brought more than 100 new vehicles to the agency.
He also spent three years at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency as chief operating officer. He was involved in a project that reviewed the on-time performance of one of its systems and increased it to almost 80 percent.
"I really enjoy being part of that," he said of transit. "Many aspects of it — supporting the community and giving back to the community — I think I really enjoy the interaction with employees and with customers."
Kevin: Do you believe there is value in this sort of thing for a young person? Would you have liked to have gotten this information from 15-20 people who were in the trenches when you were just getting started?
Kenneth: I truly would have loved that. One of the things that you get is a perspective from other people that you can use wherever it's aligned with your own management style. To me, those things are really important especially when it comes to understanding how other GMs have done it before and hearing the things that they have learned that they can share. We'll talk about some things that really helped me such as my management philosophy issues, teachable points of view, and experiences that taught me lessons as I moved along in my career.
Kevin: Do you have one teachable moment that you'd like to impart on others or share?
Kenneth: I always use that sports analogy of, "How do you know if you're winning or losing in an organization? What do you do if you're a sports fan?" One of the things you do you is you look at the score. If you like basketball, you look to see if your team winning or losing. You keep abreast of the score. I ask my team, "If you're a sports team, how do you know who is winning or losing if you do not look at the score?" No matter what organization you become a part of, looking at the score on a day-to-day basis will let you know if you are winning or losing. Whatever level you enter into at an organization, a good place to start is understanding how your organization is performing and taking the time to determine whether or not it is winning or losing. And, if we're not winning, to ask yourself, "How do we begin to change things?" That sports analogy is what I share with the folks who work with me on a regular basis.
Kevin: Is there a person who comes to mind, or have you had a particular mentor, who has impacted your leadership development?
Kenneth: Yes. Colin Powell. I read his autobiography and a great lesson I learned from his thoughts on decision making is, "If you have 70% of the information, make the decision." Everyone thinks you need all the information to make a decision -- but, you don't. You have to make a decision at some point and 70% is a good place to start. You know if you have to make a decision, you don't need the 75-90%. Make the decision with 70% of the data.
Kevin: And, I can assume when you are making a decision, you ask yourself, "Do I have 70% of the data?"
Kenneth: Every day. Because the cost of waiting to get to the 95% is so high, that the decision might not be much different. It might be the same decision you'd make at 70% that you'd make at 90%. You're only a little bit more informed.
Kevin: What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing transit leaders today?
Kenneth: There are two things I talk about a lot. One is succession planning and the other is technology. Succession planning goes two ways in an organization. First of all, you talk about new people coming into the organization and getting the right skill sets: young folks getting trained and ready to work. Yet another factor is inside the organization where there are people who have been there 20 years and there's a major change in technology today. For example, let's talk about compressed natural gas. We just got our first electric bus about a month ago. If you have the best diesel mechanics in the world and now all of a sudden you're switching to electric, you have to ask yourself if they are ready for that change. So, when I talk about succession planning, I talk about it from both an external and internal perspective. You have to hire and train the right people, and you might have more mature people who may not have the right skills for the new technologies that are coming to be. And that is a very challenging issue that all folks have to deal with, because in the end, the service you put out has a lot to do with the equipment you have or that's available to you.
Kevin: What is the one characteristic that you think every leader should have?
Kenneth: Relationships. I go straight to relationships. Whether internally and externally in the organization, people talk about networking. You're going to meet people. And how you relate to people transcends both you and others. The real asset of a leader is trading on your strength. Nobody's going to hire you for your weaknesses. We spend a lot of time trying to train people to improve and get over their weaknesses. What really makes us good leaders, are the strengths we have and our ability to expand and develop and make those strengths greater. Building relationships and developing your strength is the #1 priority of a leader.
Kevin: What is one behavior or trait that derails many leaders in transit?
Kenneth: I would say honesty. If there's an issue, you have to deal with that issue. You can't side step. Like what I said with the 70% of information. You can't wait and wait and wait. You have to make the decision, "I'm going to deal with the issue." That's what you deal with as a leader. It's the issues confronting me that I have to deal with. Could be people, could be a situation, there's always an issue, and being able to confront that issue honestly is crucial.
Kevin: What advice would you have given the 25 year old Kenneth McDonald?
Kenneth: That I would've had some teachable points of view that I would start believing in. I have three that I live by right now: Trust but verify. Every time something comes before me I will trust it, but then I will also verify it.
Also, if you're not a part of the solution you're a part of the problem.
And, that bad news does not get better with time. As a leader if you wait for time with bad news it becomes a crisis.
So I have 3 teachable points of view:
1. Trust but verify
2. If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem
3. Bad news doesn't get better over time
Mr. McDonald walks his talk. We have had the spectacular honor of working alongside him at Long Beach Transit (LBT). He is a fountain of ideas, with a mix of dry humor, attention to detail, and exceptional energy. He has performed to a "score" that has made LBT a jewel for the City of Long Beach. His is the ability to be both analytical, that is to let the real numbers guide his actions, and a leader of people. This is an uncommon combination and is only a part of what makes him such an effective leader. To those of us at Insight Strategies he is a living embodiment of the timeless advice to "manage things, but lead people."
If you want to know how to move an organization, any organization public or private, you would do well to follow his lead and advice.