Metro needs a CEO
The WMATA Board is expected to choose an interim General Manager today. The next step will then be to find a permanent head for the agency. When they do, the Board should look beyond top transit administrators and look for a top manager from the private sector.
Many of the problems Metro faces resemble those of large companies. It's a big organization with many employees and complex operational requirements. It has to drastically reduce administrative staffing while trying to maintain its capacity to get things done. It needs to improve its customer service, again with limited resources.
These are the kinds of problems that a top manager who's run a large operations-oriented company can solve. Maybe it's the head of a transportation-related company, like a FedEx or UPS, or even a large retailer or manufacturer that has to handle complex operations with many workers including a unionized workforce. Someone who's effectively run such a company has experience keeping everything moving on time and balancing that with good customer service.
DDOT Director Gabe Klein also came from a private sector background, running companies whose business related to transportation, first for Zipcar in DC and then running his own company to manage mobile food carts. He knew transportation well enough to have good instincts, but didn't have to know every minute detail of traffic signal timing. He could delegate most of those specifics to top people and focus primarily on building an effective organization. So far, he's made great strides. Metro should look for someone with a similar profile.
Some have said that Metro needs a manager who knows safety. After all, fixing safety is Metro's top priority. The latter is true, but that doesn't mean that the General Manager needs to be a safety expert. If the General Manager personally checked up on everyone inspecting tracks or operating work zones, he'd never handle the bigger issues.
Instead, the General Manager needs to know enough about safety to find the world's best Chief Safety Officer and give him or her broad powers to make sure that Metro institutes a firm culture of safety. The GM also needs to back up the safety officer in whatever decisions he or she makes. A good manager, especially a good private sector manager, can do this. Many private sector companies also deal with safety issues, and we could hire a GM whose company has a stellar safety record.
More and more public sector and nonprofit organizations are hiring leaders from the private sector. Many universities have started to do this, for example. Private sector companies aren't always better run than public sector ones and their managers aren't always better (just look at AIG, or the automakers), but there are a lot of good ones, and management techniques from the private sector that would improve public sector organizations.
Any industry, whether private or public, also develops certain "ways of doing things." People who work in the transit field say that is no different. Some of them are good, and reflect time-tested strategies learned over time. Others are simply relics maintained by inertia. Bringing in someone who's not steeped in existing assumptions gives the opportunity to reexamine them and reject the ones that aren't adding value.
The conservative path would be to hire one of the nation's best transit managers. Maybe there's a really good one out there. But Metro needs change, and it especially needs change in areas that aren't unique to transit, like customer service, or areas that the GM can't personally fix, like safety.
Metro needs two great people: a top-notch manager who knows enough about transportation but more importantly knows how to manage a large operational system, many employees, a sometimes-fractious Board, unions, customer service, and the press, and the world's best safety officer who can knock heads as necessary to make Metro one of the safest systems in the world. Looking beyond transit agencies will give Metro the best chance for success.
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