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Want to Write a Book? Take the Train!

November 20th 2015 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

In a previous post, I outlined best practices for communicating with my team. One of the most important messages that I put forth, especially at VIA, is “Talk Less – Act More”. By giving our employees the tools and the confidence to act, we are able to accomplish more – and more quickly. Every day, VIA Rail’s 2,500+ employees work together toward a common goal of making our company the best inter-city transportation option for Canadians.

So, when we were approached to support the 24 heures du roman project, I couldn’t help but identify with the concept. 24 writers board our Ocean train and within 24 hours write 24 chapters which will be complied into one book. Aside from the fact that the chosen topic of the book was Canadian historical figure Samuel de Champlain, I respect the ambition behind this project. It began with a good cause (celebrating the 400th year of a francophone presence in Ontario), which was supported by a creative plan (travelling along the same path taken by Champlain some 400 years ago, and using the train as a source of inspiration) and ended with a tangible outcome (the book). This project had it all, including the dedicated team needed to pull it off.

In late October, 24 French-language authors from France, Belgium, Acadia, Quebec and Ontario boarded our train in Halifax and tackled the challenge of writing a collaborative novel in one day. The initiative was put forth by L’Ecriture en Movement, whose mission is to promote French-language writing. The writers were assigned the task of writing their respective chapters during the trip, after which each chapter fit together into one cohesive novel. This was no small effort. VIA Rail employees and organizers from L’Ecriture en Movement did a lot of prep work before the journey took place, and once the train began its trip, it was “all hands on deck” (so to speak). With one common goal in mind, VIA Rail employees made sure everybody had what they needed to be as productive as possible.


And was this ambitious book project completed? As of today, and less than a month after their literary journey, the novel entitled, “Sur les traces de Champlain, un destin extraordinaire en 24 tableaux” has been published and is being presented at the Salon de Livre de Montreal on Saturday.

It goes to show what exceptional things can be accomplished when talented people work and ride together on a VIA Rail train. Congratulations to all those involved in this endeavour!

Taking the Train Means Keeping the Train

November 13th 2015 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

This week I had the pleasure of visiting the Maritimes to meet with local officials and transport partners to discuss service improvements. While there, I was given the opportunity to discuss our train service offering in the East on CBC’s Maritime Noon radio program.

For the past few months, we’ve been working on a plan to better serve the Maritime population, and this was our opportunity to communicate the plan to a broad audience and to generate more interest in the train. Service in the East has always been a bit tough to balance in terms of ridership, frequencies and cost. Taking the train from Montreal to Halifax is a 20-hour experience whose merits include time to relax, gorgeous views, meals and WiFi on board. Costing a trip of this nature must take into account the equipment, staff and products needed for the long-distance journey. Therefore, in certain cases, the price of a train ticket might exceed that of a two-hour flight.

Choosing the one-day train over a two-hour flight is a conscious decision. It is a lifestyle choice, an environmental choice and a choice to support your public national transportation service. It is also a really beautiful way to see your country, and one that guarantees time and mind space for creating memories.

During the interview I was asked if the service in the East was at risk of being cut. There is more than one response to this question, but my first response is always that we are “the authors of our own fate”. Plainly speaking: if you value and want to keep train service in your area, you need to take the train!

Our plan to improve service and become more relevant in the East includes new regional daily returns between Moncton – Halifax and Moncton – Cambellton, which will appeal to commuters. We will continue to provide the iconic Ocean long-haul service, but will have more flexibility to adjust frequencies to market demand. For example, the summer season accounts for 50% of our ridership and our revenue in the area. With more flexibility, we can potentially increase the service offering during those months. Another high-ridership time is during the Holiday season. Once again this year, we will be increasing the number of trains during the holidays to make sure that everyone who wants to take the train can take the train.

In conjunction with our schedule enhancement planning, we are also working on improving our onboard offering. Comments from the public (both positive and negative) during my Maritime Noon interview were appreciated and are being addressed. We are doing our utmost to gain popularity in the East and are hoping for the support of the local population.

The more often Maritimers choose to take the train, the stronger we are, and the better we can be of service. Every one of us can make a difference though our conscious efforts.

We hope to see you on board soon!

VIA Rail Recognized for Its Exceptional ERM Policy… Again!

October 30th 2015 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

If my readers will allow this digression, I would like to use this week’s blog to simply congratulate and highlight the achievements of VIA Rail’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) department, created a mere two years ago.

At its helm, Denis Lavoie, Director of Enterprise Risk Management, has been meticulously developing our ERM program. ERM is a framework within which a company can successfully navigate risk – both negative risk and positive risk (otherwise known as “opportunity”) in order to better achieve its objectives.

The fruits of his labour were already recognized once this year, through his nomination and runner-up win for a coveted international prize awarded by the Institute of Risk Management in London, England. This achievement was remarkable given the limited time Denis had begun his work on the ERM policy.

This week, VIA Rail is pleased to announce that we received yet another award for our efforts in ERM. An honourable mention for this year’s ERM Award of Distinction was presented by the Risk Management Society – the preeminent organization dedicated to advancing the practice of risk management. This further recognition reconfirmed that VIA Rail is doing a remarkable job in managing risk and developing a risk appetite and tolerance framework that will help support its future success.


Denis Lavoie accepts the Honourable Mention at the 2015 RIMS ERM Conference

In his own words, Denis describes the importance of having a strong ERM policy:

“Applying this framework to its key strategic risks strengthened VIA’s ability to assess, monitor, and respond timely to changes in its enterprise-wide risk portfolio, thereby adding value to its decision-making process and enhancing risk oversight by its Board of Directors”

We are very proud that this important work has been noticed and celebrated by leading organizations in the field. Congratulations to Denis and his team on this remarkable accomplishment.

Seeing the Job From the Outside In

October 23rd 2015 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

Over the course of my life, I have held many different roles, in various industries including legal, regulatory and government relations, sales & marketing, business & corporate development, finance, IT, in companies in the computer, telecommunications, software, advertising and transportation sectors. Some were private entrepreneurial ventures while others were publicly-held institutional companies.

By listening, observing and questioning everything, by investing myself into every position, I grew and made mistakes, and I also learned a great deal. Those learnings from mistakes are what I refer to as my expertise. I now find myself working in the pursuit of the public interest – this time in the realm of public transportation.

I have learned that one of the most important abilities in business, especially when it comes to a customer-facing company like VIA Rail, is to see and understand the business from an outsider’s perspective, with fresh eyes. Staying inspired is essential. Keeping abreast of trends, being adaptive and taking action to keep the company relevant is how one evolves and works to secure a company’s long term success.

In my office are some of the most inspiring books I’ve read – those that keep the curious and ambitious mind on its toes, those that inspire and challenge the reader to do better, and those that help one form that vital outsider’s point of view. Here are a few of them:

The End of Business As Usual: Rewire the way you work to succeed in the consumer revolution, by Brian Solis

The Upside: the 7 strategies for turning big threats into growth breakthroughs, by Adrian J. Slywotzky

Making the Impossible Possible, by Masatake Matsuda

Work Like You’re Showing Off! The joy, jazz and kick of being better tomorrow then you were today, by Joe Calloway

Since my appointment as President and CEO of VIA Rail a year and a half ago, I have tried to help every department to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of our customers, the ones we have today and the new ones we need tomorrow. Thanks to our team’s willingness to embrace change, to make change a constant feature of our work, I believe we are more relevant and top-of-mind in people’s consideration of travel options. VIA Rail’s success is dependent on each of us staying inspired and continuing to challenge ourselves.

If you have any book recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them. You can write to me through my Twitter account @VIARailPrez.


Keep Calm and Carry On… Communicating

September 28th 2015 by Yves Desjardins-Siciliano

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.