In August, the Asian financial markets suffered big losses, which affected North American markets as well. In response to this, the CEO of Starbucks, projecting some anxiety would ensue, sent out an email to his employees – all 190,000 of them – about the situation, and about their role as employees, “Please […] remember that our success is not an entitlement, but something we need to earn, every day”, it read. The email concluded with, “The experience we deliver in our stores, the strength and equity of our brand, and the primary reason for our current and future success is because of all of YOU”. I respect this type of direct communication and at VIA Rail, we strive to implement it as well. Early signs show that it is working: our 2015 employee engagement survey indicates that the engagement of all employees is increasing while the percent of disengaged employees has decreased. Communication has a lot to do with these positive results.
Market fluctuations and other obstacles can affect every person working in a company along with every client that company serves. So how do we carry on our day-to-day business in the face of destabilizing or difficult events? In my opinion, it is through supportive and clear communication. Since being appointed as CEO in May of 2014, I have visited every one of our offices and maintenance centers on a quarterly basis. I meet with employees to discuss decisions made after every Board meeting. I send out direct communications through email or through our internal communications website regularly. I strive to remain connected with our whole team: executives, managers and front-line employees.
Here are a few essentials I keep in mind when communicating:
- Talk frankly
I always treat my team with the respect they deserve as informed, intelligent people. For me, that means no sugar-coating the truth. There is no benefit in pretending there isn’t a problem when there is, and there is no benefit in keeping employees in the dark. The best course is to send out a direct message about a situation, stating the facts and outlining a way forward.
- Don’t burn the bridge
Keeping the lines of communication open at all times builds a stronger and more connected team. It’s also a matter of trust. It is imperative that all members of the team be given the truth and learn to handle the truth. Whether it is good news or bad news, our door must always be open. We must show confidence that most errors any one of us can commit, all of us can help fix.
- Sympathize and celebrate
Reserving communication for unfortunate events sends out the message that leadership will only be present in the hard times. Although it is very important to be available when times get tough, it is just as important to be there during the good times. All situations, good or bad, present a moment of truth that defines the culture of the organization. Like any supportive relationship, members of a team should make time to sympathize and to celebrate together.
- Speak with one voice
VIA Rail has over 2,600 employees, more than half of whom are customer-facing, meaning they communicate directly with our clients. Every day our company is represented by these employees, who are recognized again and again for their stellar customer service. Substantive and accurate internal communication is imperative to keep the team informed. Armed with information, our “ambassadors” are better able to represent their company and convey informed and positive messages to our clients.
- Talk less – Act more
Communication is more than just words. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. A bias for action also means that we communicate our beliefs, our values and our commitment to each other by doing, and not just saying. It’s through our positive actions that we bring the most benefit to those who matter most: our customers.
At VIA, we are faced with new challenges every day. Maintaining open communication is one way to ensure that we “Keep Calm and Carry On”, while evolving and improving all the time.
Do you remember your student days? The desire to learn, the mind space that soaks up all and everything you read and the belief that you will make a change in the world around you. Unfortunately, for many reasons and for many people this passion seems to fade with the passage of time. For a corporation like VIA Rail, it is important that its employees remain motivated and stimulated; that their enthusiasm and spirits remain high regardless of the years passing us by.
This summer, one of the ways we harnessed and infused this passion into our corporation was by ensuring an active youth presence. Continuing to surround ourselves with new and fresh opinions is imperative in keeping a company relevant. It is for this reason that we opened our doors to many student interns every year, who are placed in our different departments from legal to IT to corporate communications, marketing and operations. They come from different schools, pursuing different areas of study. But they all share those feelings and beliefs of our own youth.
We welcome them into the corporation and give each department the following instruction: at VIA Rail, student internships are for learning; they are also for contributing. We expect our students not only to listen and lend a hand but also to make active contributions to the company. Students represent the future of Canada’s corporate establishment. They are expected to question our ways, provoke us to review our beliefs and in the end, work to their full potential. Their ideas and opinions are encouraged and nurtured. Their views matter.
At the end of this summer, our student interns and management (including myself) came together to hear about their experiences at VIA. The central theme of the feedback we received was exactly what we were hoping to hear: the interns felt like they were a part of the team. They were given relevant work and trusted with important files. They felt that their opinions mattered!
But let me not forget to give credit where credit is due. The group of students we were lucky to have this summer floored us. For many, VIA was their first immersion into the working world which made the quality of their work all the more impressive. Whether it be from the school they were attending or just from being part of the interconnected social world they grew up in, this year’s students were engaged and played an active role at VIA and we thank them for their dedication.
Not only does the younger generation have worthwhile ideas, it is our social responsibility to let them know that they are important and empowered when it comes to their careers and the rest of their lives. We play our role in shaping responsible citizens and they play their roles in helping move our company forward.
We’d like to thank all the students who spent the summer with us. We expect great things from each and every one of you!
A few significant events occurred recently that got me thinking about the importance of strong and responsible leadership and mentorship, and the effect it has on employees and on people’s lives.
I began my career as a lawyer. While still in law school, I applied for a summer position in one of Canada’s preeminent law firms. That’s where I met a man who gave me my first big break. He was the type of person who could look around himself, see the potential in others and nurture it. Sadly, I came to that realization while attending his funeral a few days ago. Moreover, in that moment it dawned on me that I had him to thank, in large part, for the type of leader I have become. Working with people, coaching them and giving them opportunities to shine is what being a good business person and leader is all about. He was that type of person. Sitting in that church pew surrounded by so many people he positively affected during his lifetime was motivating to me. I only hope that I can be that type of leader to the good people that work at VIA Rail.
Around the same time, an interview I gave was published as part of a series of articles in the Financial Post on the theme of “Lessons in Leadership: Reflections from Canadian CEOs”. It was an opportunity for me to once again consider my approach to leadership and in many ways share the style, tone and manner of the leadership lessons I had learned through the years, starting with that first law student job. Under the title “Why VIA Rail’s boss feels ‘getting his hands dirty’ is important”, I share those lessons. To be frank, I’ve never considered the way I work as “getting my hands dirty”. But I did learn early, and through great examples, that leaders need to earn the respect of their teams. To me, that means being an integral part of the team and pitching in, no matter what the task.
Ironically, the day of that funeral was also my own birthday. And so, as I returned to work, I was surrounded by my VIA Rail colleagues, who are also people I admire and enjoy working with. I recognized my great fortune in leading VIA Rail’s astounding team. Being the leader of that team is indeed a great honour. It is my duty to make sure, as my deceased mentor and others after him did for me, that the potential of those around me is encouraged, recognized, nurtured and rewarded. It is an awesome responsibility, and one to which I dedicate myself, in his memory.
In 2017, VIA Rail will be celebrating its 40th anniversary. As the corporation gets closer to this big “birthday”, we are looking forward to a time of transformation as our workforce evolves. VIA Rail cares about its employees, and we have many programs to ensure that they work in a stimulating and safe environment. Proof positive of our efforts is that fact that many people, once on the VIA Rail team, stay for many years. As we get closer to our 40th, our company is reaching an age when many of our long-term employees, those who have spent a good portion of their lives serving Canadians, will be moving on to their next adventures as retirees.
Many initiatives have been put into place in order to attract bright new talent to VIA Rail and to make this transition a time of optimism, new ideas and advancement for the company. One very important partnership in this regard is with the Canada Company Military Employment Program (MET). The MET is an initiative developed to help members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), reservists and veterans transition out of the military into the civilian workforce. There are in fact many parallels between the CAF and VIA Rail in terms of work ethics and skills.
The following video created by Canada Company in conjunction with VIA Rail highlights three employees in different departments whose military training was invaluable in helping them transition into their roles at VIA Rail.
We are very happy to be working with Canada Company, and look forward to welcoming more people from the CAF into the VIA Rail team. We also encourage any other potential candidates to visit our careers page. There are so many different departments to work in, and so many varied skill sets that can be applied to the work we do at VIA Rail, it’s worth a look. But fair warning – once you join the team, you may be in for the “long-haul”!
This Saturday, Bruno Riendeau, Director, Safety and Environment, will receive Progressive Railroading’s Rising Stars Award and will also be profiled in the September issue of their magazine. This award is given to 20 people under the age of 40 who have been identified as up-and-comers – people who are already making a difference – in the railway industry through their leadership, passion and innovation. VIA Rail’s honouree, Bruno, shows these traits and more.
Working within the Legal and Risk Management department at VIA Rail, Bruno has become an expert in his field and a member of the team that everyone should be happy we have around. The work he does brings our corporation from safe to safer, and we are thrilled that his accomplishments are being recognized. Below are four questions that explain who he is and why his job is so important. Bravo, Bruno!
What is your role at VIA Rail?
BR: I am responsible for the safety and environment corporate governance and compliance.
Simply put, I take the external requirements put forth by various groups like Transport Canada or best management standards such as ISO standards and translate them into procedures and organized systems, like our Safety Management System (SMS) and our Environmental Management System. And I have to make sure that what I propose can be done, is workable, in the field.
A big component of what I do is to work with Operations to integrate these procedures into their regular workday as seamlessly as possible. This is the part of my job where I think my strengths lie – I have a knack for bringing external requirements into the practical world.
What does your job mean for VIA?
BR: I am working to help move VIA from a safety culture based on compliance to one that uses a risk-based approach. Right now, most of the railway industry, including in North America, is very reactive. We react to the changes in regulation and make the necessary modifications to comply with them.
My job is about moving VIA Rail more towards thinking from a preventative mindset. As in, how can we identify our safety and environmental hazards so that we can be better at preventing incidents from happening instead of being reactive to them?
The fact that VIA Rail is being recognized by the industry is good evidence that we are moving in the right direction. We’re getting there. The implementation and continuous improvement of our SMS is supporting our journey to becoming a company with an even stronger safety culture based on risk management.
As for evolving the safety culture on a more personal level at VIA, this requires a shift in the way we think. It is a journey that I started a long time ago and it is improving continually. More recently, I’ve noticed a change into something new and better as we successfully develop and evolve our systems. I am working to get us closer to that objective.
What do you like best about your job?
BR: I love the challenge of finding the best way to make our SMS even better and more efficient. To do that, I needed to learn everything about the business and know exactly how each department operates. Working with everyone across the country, in every department, and getting to know them has been one of the best parts of my job
What does this award mean to you?
BR: It is great recognition for the work that we have done – and there is a long history behind it. Everybody at VIA Rail has helped me to be successful in this role. It is also acknowledgment that the line of work I’m in is important and that it does not go unnoticed. It’s a great opportunity for me and for VIA. It’s motivating, and it shows that people care.