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1998 Partnership Optimas Award Profile New York Metropolitan Transit Authority

Like a fresh transfusion of Starbucks(TM) coffee in the morning, approximately 5.7 million commuters flow into the metropolitan New York area each weekday morning using a Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) bus, train or subway. During their daily commutes, riders probably don’t give much thought to the inner workings of the MTA and how it transports 1.7 billion people in its 4,000-square-mile service area each year. But, as the largest provider of transportation in the Western Hemisphere, MTA managers have a monumental task in keeping systems running and people moving — smoothly — virtually ’round the clock, year after year.

It’s no small task. And for the most part, the organization, which comprises five separate agencies, does its job very well. And like any other employer, the New York MTA has a vital interest in developing its workforce to meet the needs of its changing and growing operations.

One groundbreaking way the organization has helped meet its need for well-developed and qualified managers with solid operational experience is through its Future Managers Program (FMP). The program was developed in 1989 to address a critical talent shortage throughout the MTA’s five agencies: MTA New York City Transit, MTA Long Island Railroad, MTA Long Island Bus, MTA Metro-North Railroad, and MTA Bridges and Tunnels. Because of the innovative way in which these five agencies have partnered together to develop a healthy pipeline of managerial talent — especially women and minorities — the program wins the 1998 Workforce Magazine Optimas Award for Partnership. The idea for the program started with an operational diagnosis.

Assessing the need for better managers.
In 1989, the MTA asked human resources consultants at New York City-based Towers Perrin Inc. to conduct a management needs assessment. The study included interviews with the presidents of each of the five MTA agencies. The resulting report uncovered the need for a system that could develop managers across all five agencies. Although each agency runs fairly independently, they all need to interact to keep systems running efficiently. Therefore, managers need a shared knowledge base and extensive networks with other agency managers for better understanding of their interdependence and operations. Back then, such networking was scarce, especially for women and minority workers who were hoping to rise in the MTA ranks.

“The goals of the program initially were simple: [First], it was about bringing women and minorities into the operating functions where they weren’t very well represented,” explains Loriann Hoffman, manager of organizational development and training for the MTA. Diversity is a particularly perplexing problem for transportation organizations. “One of the challenges [in our industry] is to bring more diversity into the leadership ranks of transit agencies,” says Amy Coggin, director of policy for the American Public Transit Association (APTA) based in Washington, D.C., of which the MTA is a member. Coggin explains that keeping a good supply of diverse, creative thinkers in the transportation industry is vital to its success because the industry’s customer demographics change so quickly. “[For future managers] to bring those new, fresh perspectives is critical,” she says. Having a more diverse mix of managers within the MTA infuses the organization with ideas to help meet customer needs.

“The [program’s second] long-term goal was to get a more global type of manager,” says Hoffman. Which meant: developing managers who understand the entire MTA “world” instead of just one piece of it. Because the five agencies work so independently, MTA had evolved to the point that a manager in one agency didn’t have a keen concept of what managers in the other agencies faced daily. “Yet, our goal is to be a seamless transportation network,” explains Hoffman. The FMP helps its participants get the “big picture.”

The MTA’s Future Managers Program has accomplished these two goals: 50 percent of the program’s graduates have been women or minorities, and the graduates have become “big picture” ambassadors representing the views of the other agencies in their home operations. It has accomplished these goals by throwing workers with budding talent into the fray to get the right kind of baseline knowledge of operations and management.

FMP is rigorous and relevant.
MTA’s Future Managers Program is innovative because it’s extremely demanding and comprehensive. While most management development programs last from only a few days to several months, FMP is a two-year, operations-based internship program for new managers who already are working within the MTA ranks. The program prepares individuals for first-line management positions through a combination of management education and rotating assignments that take trainees through many aspects of running a transportation system. To top it off, FMP also has a mentoring component. All these elements have led many other organizations to call the MTA for ideas on starting the same kind of program.

Six to eight candidates are chosen each “term” for the highly competitive program from each of the five agencies. MTA’s organizational development department, which works out of the MTA’s headquarters in Manhattan, orchestrates the program on behalf of the five agencies. Each agency’s managers must supply a list of FMP candidates biannually. Several hundred candidates are suggested. The candidates undergo an extensive interview and assessment center process so the selection team (which consists of representatives from MTA operating departments and HR managers) can choose candidates with the most promise and the best fit for the program’s goals. The selection team looks for individuals who have managerial experience and lots of enthusiasm. “Tomorrow’s MTA managers will have to deal with a diverse workforce and lead their agencies into a service-oriented culture,” says Hoffman.

Once chosen, the students engage in a weeklong orientation and then go to field assignments. For the first six months, they return weekly to MTA headquarters for management development activities and classes that include topics such as team-building and leadership development. During the last 18 months, enrollees return to the home office only one day every other week for training.

The FMP participants’ field activities include a variety of operational tasks from developing and implementing a safety program to helping set up maintenance equipment. Most serve a rotational assignment in their own agency and have a specific job waiting for them when they finish. For example, Gus Meyers, who went through the FMP in 1992-1994 knew he’d be placed in a train master position after graduation. “It was great because I focused my energies on the things that were really going to be important,” says Meyers who’s now a lead train master in MTA’s Metro-North agency in North White Plains, New York.

The shared knowledge of other MTA operations usually comes when FMP students network. “There’s a camaraderie between the graduates who go back into their separate agencies after the program is over,” says Maria C. Maida, manager of programs management for the MTA. “It’s a big plus because they now have allies elsewhere in the organization. They share information more easily.” The contacts they make are invaluable.

In the second year, FMP classmates complete a final project as a team. The final projects are demanding and diverse, and have ranged from benchmarking the operations of another transportation agency to developing a transportation curriculum for school kids who fear riding on subways. The class presents the final project at a gathering that includes family members, agency heads, vice presidents and even the MTA chairman.

The interaction with high-level MTA officials is one of the biggest advantages for students — they get visibility with the MTA executive circle and learn about workplace politics, which contributes to making it within the MTA system.

Networking for success.
Many firms are learning the value of mentors for budding managers. The MTA has embraced the concept wholeheartedly. Since its inception, FMP has partnered “students” with operational “coaches” who help their proteges establish goals, and who monitor and evaluate their progress. They also give their students a personal perspective on being a manager.

For example, Pat O’Brien, who’s the vice president of operations support for MTA’s department of buses within the New York City Transit agency, has mentored two FMP students. “I’m an advocate of mentoring,” says O’Brien. “What really helps these new managers develop self-confidence is the personal interest [their mentors] take in their career development and personal growth. I don’t see any organization that considers itself a viable entity in the new millennium living without a mentoring program.”

Such partnerships are important to the future success of this public sector organization because it’s continually challenged to use its resources effectively. Sharing knowledge rather than hoarding it and creating partnerships across its five agencies will be key.

Workforce, February 1998, Vol. 77, No. 2, pp. 66-70.