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MTA Travels Far with Its Future Managers Program

March 1, 1995
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Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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It's not easy to find hard-working, dedicated employees, and it's even more difficult to find a good manager. Qualified candidates aren't exactly breaking down the doors. Yet New York City-based Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is doing pretty well for itself, thanks to its Future Managers Program.

The Future Managers Program (FMP) was created in 1989 to address the findings of a management needs assessment study conducted by an outside agency—Towers Perrin Foster Crosby. As part of their report, TPFC interviewed the presidents of each of the five different MTA agencies: Long Island Railroad, Metro-North Commuter Railroad, Long Island Bus, Bridges and Tunnels, and New York City Transit Authority. The prognosis was that the MTA needed a system for continually developing managerial candidates—across all five of its agencies.

The MTA did its homework before diving into a solution. An HR generalist from Metro-North assisted in laying the groundwork by traveling to other organizations that had managerial internship programs.

In response, MTA established the executive and organizational development department, which in turn created the Future Managers Program—an intense, two-year training initiative that prepares its members to take on first-level management positions within MTA's operational agencies.

The FMP has two unique aspects. First, the program combines management training sessions with a demanding job rotation. Classroom instruction gives a solid learning foundation while the job rotations expose them to a variety of on-the-job experiences. Second, the classroom contains a mixture of employees from the five different MTA agencies. "A goal of this program was to make the MTA more of a family of interagencies, rather than separate agencies working autonomously," explains Loriann Hoffman-Ho, manager of executive and organizational development. "An employee who works on a subway learns what happens on a commuter railroad and vice versa, and they start exchanging information. Future managers learn they don't work for just one agency; they're part of a whole network. Participants get the big picture."

But the program isn't just a free-for-all for wannabe managers. It's exclusive by design, and open only by invitation.

The MTA chooses its best and brightest for the Future Managers Program.
The few selected for the FMP have survived a grueling selection process that narrows more than 500 qualified applicants to a small class of six to eight.

When the program first started, the MTA advertised outside the company and received 4,000 resumes for 10 slots; since the third class, they've only advertised within the MTA, which has over 60,000 employees. In order to qualify, potential candidates must work in an operations department, must have two years' work experience, and must have at least an associate degree.

At the beginning of a recruitment season, an advisory committee—comprising representatives from the MTA, liaisons and technical advisers from each agency—meets to discuss scheduling and planned changes. Each agency receives a request for a headcount of how many positions it's offering in the upcoming FMP class.

Posters go up throughout the various agencies, stating the program guidelines, and listing a resume due date. Each agency knows what kind of person it needs—for instance, someone with a degree in mechanical engineering and computer skills—and they put that information on the recruiting poster.

Each agency brings a diverse selection team—(mixed gender, mixed race, reps from operating departments and human resources)—to examine the pile of resumes from their agency. Their task is to whittle that pile to 30 people, who are invited to an open house at a hotel. Then about 150 people (five agencies with 30 candidates) come for interviews at the open house. The same team that selects the 30 resumes conducts the interviews; now they must cut 30 candidates down to six finalists.

At the open house, candidates are scheduled for 30-minute interviews; each agency has its own room. After the interviews, potential candidates hear an overview of the program, watch a video, get the chance to ask questions and mingle with people already in the program. "We want them to get a very clear picture," says Hoffman-Ho. "This program is about constant change in your life schedule for two years. We want people who really want to play."

Hoffman-Ho tells candidates the great part of the FMP is visibility; they'll meet lots of people during rotations. But the two years involve much ambiguity. She tells them their actions will make them succeed; the program just supplies the tools. She says if anyone wants to withdraw to call her, but very few do; almost everyone stays until the end.

After the interview process, each agency selects the six people to invite to an assessment center that runs all day; each agency has its own assessment center, where potential candidates take tests, do role plays, participate in individual and group activities. Assessors are usually the interviewers; they might include the agency liaison, the technical adviser, reps from human resources, or FMP graduates. To prepare for the assessment, they all attend a two-day training session, where Hoffman-Ho teaches them how to evaluate candidates.

The final day of the four-day process is spent integrating data, writing reports and making recommendations. The decision is never just one person's. The six finalists from each agency receive written reports on how they performed in the assessment center, but only three are invited into the final round of interviews. This committee is designed by each agency; it may include the president, the top operations person, managers, etc. The committee interviews the three finalists and selects one or two (depending on the number of managerial positions they need to develop) for the FMP. All told, it takes six months from initial resume reviews until the final selection.

"We're looking for down-to-earth people who want to learn and who can deal with ambiguity," Hoffman-Ho states. "All the MBAs in the world don't make a future manager. What succeeds is willingness and flexibility. Since the selection process is so long, we get to see consistency in a person's behavior, so the eventual choices make sense."

Future managers plunge headfirst into the fray.
Those who survive the selection process are submerged in classroom training and job-rotation duties.

Management training classes, run by Hoffman-Ho at MTA's Manhattan headquarters, make up the smaller portion of the FMP. During the first six months, (the most crucial time), the classes meet weekly; for the remaining 18 months of the program, it meets every other week.

Yet the instruction remains an important part of managerial development. Mornings are devoted to formal training: case study analysis, team building, problem solving, delegating work, developing leadership, improving communication skills. Afternoons are spent discussing what's happening out in the field.

Toward the end of the second year, the class must decide on a final project. At this point, students have already done individual projects and presentations—such as hosting a tour of their agency—but now they must reach a consensus and work as a team. And though the class is largely self-governing, they often struggle to find a common denominator.

The group project is demanding. Future managers must balance job rotations while also arranging time to meet their teammates and develop the project. The class receives a budget and guidelines; they have six months to do the project. The audience for their elaborate presentation includes families, the upcoming class, agency heads, vice presidents. Then there's a reception on a balcony in Grand Central Station, where the MTA president gives certificates.

The projects are as diverse as the groups themselves. One class traveled to Washington, D.C., to study a similar agency. Another class looked at Flushing, Queens, a busy transportation hub with a large Asian population. They created a customer service brochure in Chinese on how to use the five systems. Yet another group developed a transportation curriculum for school kids to rid them of their fear of riding the subways.

The managerial classes not only provide technical instruction, they help students deal with workplace politics—a serious issue because program members constantly move around in their job rotation assignments and must deal with different management cultures.

"Our goal is to develop people at the first level of management who know a lot about what makes the railroad or the subways or the buses tick," says Hoffman-Ho. "If we give them continuous management development training and diverse rotation assignments, they'll know enough so that later on they can move into a new area if a position opens up. Maybe they're in transportation, but they learned enough about maintenance to know they can do this job. The rotation gives them wider promotional opportunities."

Although Hoffman-Ho says the ideal situation would have candidates rotating through the five agencies, the amount of time this would take makes it unrealistic. As it is, future managers spend most of their week out in the field, following a job rotation plan within their own agency. Each of the five agencies has a technical adviser who designs a job rotation schedule. Four of the agencies have specific slots in mind for their FMP members at the class start, so rotations are individually tailored to meet the needs of each future manager. The tasks to be carried out and the learning objectives of each assignment are written on a rotational assignment work plan form. At the end of each rotation, the supervisor rates the candidate.

Sherry Herrington, assistant superintendent of transportation at Metro-North Commuter Railroad, and technical adviser to the FMP, says that very specific steps are involved in designing a rotation schedule. "The first thing we do is look at what position they're going for and what they need to learn to fulfill that position. With that overall picture in mind, we design rotations into different areas of the department, so that the participant gets some understanding of various job responsibilities. We'll pick an expert—who the person rotates with—and we'll design a rotation form that addresses the learning needs we expect that future manager to come away with in that specific rotation."

Herrington stays in close contact with both candidates and their rotation supervisors; she speaks to candidates at least once or twice during a rotation, so she can judge whether a specific rotation should be shortened or extended, or whether a rotation is giving overlapping information.

Herrington designed the rotation schedule for Gus Meyers, a future manager in training for a transportation department position as train master with Metro-North. (A train master manages movement of a specific line.) Prior to the program, Meyers was an iron worker who built bridges for the railroad. "It can be hectic and demanding, but I'm learning a lot," Meyers said about the job rotations. "When you've been working in one department, you tend to have tunnel vision. The rotations give you a broader perspective on how one department affects another. Plus, when we're in class, we meet our counterparts at other agencies and we see how they solve problems. The contacts and the people you meet are the best part of this program."

Meyers described some of his job rotation assignments during his first year:

  • One month in Metro-North's training department, where he took the conductor's class
  • One month at Grand Central Terminal, where he worked with the system road foreman
  • Two months at the Pelham, New York train station, where he worked with the road foreman
  • One month at Grand Central Station, where he worked with the rail traffic controller in the operations control center
  • One month in a midtown Manhattan office, where he worked with the assistant director of transportation planning
  • One month in New Haven, Connecticut, where he worked on the line with the train master
  • Six weeks in various locations, where he worked with different train masters, spending two weeks in the mechanical, signal and power departments.

As noted from these job descriptions, another defining element of the FMP is that it only trains people for positions in operating departments—not finance, not HR, not administration, not computers.

In addition, extra attention is given in recruiting and developing women and minorities—particularly women, who often face challenges in this area. "Women have a harder time in operations," asserts Hoffman-Ho. "We pay extra attention to making sure they're not just filing or typing. If I hear someone's been filing too long, I'll call."

Unlike the four other agencies, the LIRR decided upon a more standardized rotation schedule for its future mangers. During the first year, students spend three months rotating through four main departments: transportation, passenger service, equipment maintenance, engineering. During the next six months, they rotate through support areas, such as police and public affairs. By the last six months, the LIRR knows where they need that person and where they excel; then an individualized schedule is created.

Program members receive constant support and feedback.
Future managers are often confronted with situations different than their prior work experience; that's where the mentor serves as coach or role model. Mentors are experienced people already in management and working in the same division of operation as their mentee. They're chosen by the individual agencies because they've excelled in their positions. Chosen toward the end of the class selection process, they meet their mentee during orientation week.

"I would have killed for this opportunity 10 years ago," says mentor Bill Cronin, administration and finance officer, New York City Transit Authority, division of electrical systems. "I wish this program had existed when I was coming up."

Mentors listen to problems and supply information about the culture of their agency. It might be a simple question like whether to wear a shirt and tie or jeans to this department. When the future manager starts working on an agency specific project (at the end of the first year), the mentor drops into the management development class to make sure he or she understands the technical guidelines of the assignment.

Pat O'Brien, chief officer, NYC Transit, department of buses, mentored FMP graduate Craig Cipriano, and was his rotational supervisor for six months. At that time, O'Brien was a general manager in Manhattan, working on providing extra bus service during the Democratic National Convention. Cipriano got to see this system being set up and helped supervise it. He's now a superintendent, who analyzes operations to see what can be done to improve the buses' on-time performance. "FMP is a vital part of developing our future managers," says O' Brien, who also interviews potential candidates. "We're developing a cadre of leaders."

A mentor-participant contract cuts down the gaps in a mentoring relationship. Both parties desighn and sign a contract stating when and how they will communicate.

But forging a relationship is not always easy. Since the MTA is a huge transportation company, it's possible a mentor and mentee may be stationed miles apart; a future manager might be rotating at Penn Station, Manhattan, while his or her mentor is working at the tip of Long Island. Or a mentor works 9 to 5, while the mentee works the graveyard shift. To avoid communication gaps created by different hours and long distances, Hoffman-Ho designed a mentor-participant contract. Both parties design and sign a contract stating when and how they will communicate, how they will handle issues of confidentiality, and what their plan of action will be.

"When I met with my mentee and we worked out a contract, we agreed our relationship was going to be as open and frank as possible," says Cronin, who meets his protege, Yvette Anderson, in person every two weeks. "She need not worry about our conversation going anywhere. I'm a sounding board. I try to make her solve problems herself. I try to channel her thinking or efforts toward what I feel is the best solution and hopefully we can agree."

Cronin observes that he too has benefitted from the mentoring relationship. "I'm at a level where I may not get the whole story. I may get the spin. Yvette is out there, bringing back first-hand information. Working with her keeps me fresher."

In addition to a mentor's ear, students receive continual evaluations throughout the two years. The feedback is supplied by three main methods of performance monitoring. First, the rotation supervisor fills out a rotation evaluation form at the end of each rotation. In addition, every six months, students evaluate each other on a management development evaluation form and give each other feedback on these reviews. This exercise helps them apply what they're learning in class. Hoffman-Ho collects these forms and then does her own evaluation. Based upon these evaluations, students create an action plan detailing where they need to concentrate in the future. Finally, each agency's liaison to FMP receives these evaluation forms and does an agency write-up.

If a candidate gets poor reviews, Hoffman-Ho sits down with that person, the mentor, and the rotation supervisor. The candidate is warned and goes on a one month probation. If there's no improvement, he or she is asked to leave. That's only happened once.

Six months prior to graduation, the MTA starts discussions about final placement. And though graduates are not guaranteed a job after completing the program, the MTA and the agency have invested considerable time and money, so clearly they want to put that investment to work. The majority of graduates have received jobs in their targeted position after graduation; however, they are competing with in-house managers at the various agencies who have come up through the ranks.

As for the long-range success of the program, Hoffman-Ho thinks it's too early to grade the results in terms of succession planning. "I think we'd need 10 years to follow up and see where our numbers go." Every year the president of each agency meets with MTA chair, Peter Stangl, and gives him the status of his FMP graduates and discusses development plans for them.

"A lot of companies do job rotation programs," observes Hoffman-Ho, "but what's different is that we're developing people in operations. We don't develop them for a back office position. I think this kind of program—constant job rotation and constant management training—could work in other organizations [as well]. People in the Future Managers Program have lots of potential. We give them visibility; what they do with it is up to them."

Personnel Journal, March 1995, Vol. 74, No. 3, pp. 68-72.

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