Some, in town, are not happy with the rumored choice--either with the process undertaken to recruit a new GM, nor with the
At this point in time, I will not take a position on the wisdom of the hire, though I certainly have my doubts about the process. Some consultation of Metro or the City of Portland, even if courtesy, would have been politically wise. Instead, I will consider the qualifications for the gig, and what sort of person makes the most sense.
The GM of TriMet--a regional transit agency with a strong operational focus (but some planning responsibilities) and a significant investment in physical infrastructure, requires someone who can do--or delegate--the following.
- Budgeting and planning
- Overseeing operations and logistics
- Dealing with labor (particularly unions) and vendors
- Represent transit and transit ops in long-range planning activities.
- Serve as the public face of the agency--especially when the sh*t hits the fan. (When things go well, the director of TriMet simply doesn't make the news).
- Interface with Metro, with ODOT, with the city and county governments, with other local transit agencies (C-Tran, SMART, Portland Streetcar), and with the various federal bureaucracies which care about transit and urban planning.
- Go begging for money from those levels of government--in particular, the feds, with large pots of it to throw around.
- Defend the agencies tax revenue stream from other rival agencies who might want it, and from transit opponents and tax hawks who might prefer to de-fund TriMet altogether.
The candidate pool for a position such as TriMet GM will generally consist of the following skillsets:
- Transit operations managers
- Public administrators (persons with training and experience running government bureacracies, not necessarily transit)
- Planning, engineering, or urban design professionals
- Occasionally, private-sector managers or executives.
- Also occasionally, union officials.
In other words, a Transit Professional™.
The legendary, mythical Transit Professional
Simply running a transit agency, needless to say, does not make you a "transit professional". When folks speak of transit pros, they generally mean those who have spent significant time in actual transit operations or engineering. People who used to work as dispatchers or shop supervisors or as route planners (or possibly even as mechanics or drivers). Those who know the ins and outs of scheduling, or when to order a new batch of brakes, or who can calculate overtime on the back of their hands. People who get their hands dirty in the garage, rather than in the backroom.
Many demands for a Transit Professional seem to come from transit workers--and it's no wonder. It's a common phenomenon in enterprises of all sorts, public and private, that the rank-and-file generally prefer "one of their own" get promoted into leadership positions, rather than seeing outside management professionals (especially those with little practical experience in the activity being managed) being inserted at the top. Likewise, many well-meaning transit advocates--who interact with the rank and file every morning when they ride the train to work, express the same preference.
The term Transit Professional also suggests a degree of political independence and focus on technical merit. It seems to be an article of faith for some that while your average bureaucratic hack will readily compromise the agency's mission for political expedience, a true Transit Professional will steadfastly put the agency and its patrons first and foremost every time; will make all decisions based solely on operational merits--politics be damned--and will slay whatever dragons get in the way. A lack of political or administrative experience among many such professionals, is often considered a plus rather than a minus.
But is hiring a Transit Professional of this sort (either promoting a director of ops from within, or hiring an individual with said experience) really a good idea?
The risks of neophytes.
Getting back to the list of duties above--the majority of the list are political duties. Interacting with other agencies and their heads. Schmoozing. Seeking funding. Defending turf. In short, anyone who heads a public agency of any significant size is going to be swimming with sharks--and chances are, the people that a transit head will be interacting with are going to be highly politically astute. And some of them will be hostile to the transit agency (or covetous of its budget); and a sizable fraction of those will go to great lengths to conceal this intent. As a result--the job requires political skills. Some prospects with primary technical experience will have the "street smarts" to navigate these shark-infested waters--but many do not. The halls of government (and the boardrooms of business) are littered with the remains of failed administrators who were technically proficient but politically clueless.
Of course, there are equally many examples of skilled politicians failing as administrators as well--often due to a lack of knowledge of what they were supposed to be administering.
Does that mean that administration of large organizations is hopeless, unless you can find that rare individual with both technical and managerial chops?
Of course not. The key--is delegation.
The importance of delegation
Probably one of the most important skills in a manager is knowing his or her limitations, finding subordinates who possess the missing skillsets, and empowering them to do their job. Oh, and listening to them and taking their advice on their areas of expertise. Managers who cannot do this, who cannot successfully manage down, are likely to fail--no matter how skilled they are at dealing with peers, customers, and stakeholders. A transit agency needs a politically skilled representative to be the face of, and advocate for, the agency--and they need someone who knows the nuts and bolts.
However, and this is key: They don't necessarily need to be the same person.
And therein lies the rub. Assuming you don't find that rare individual who can do it all; who walks on water when she's not busy parting it; the different leadership functions will probably be vested in different people. Which brings up another important question: Which one gets to be the boss?
And here, the answer may disappoint many transit advocates. It is far easier to delegate operations than it is to delegate politics. Many cities nowadays have professional managers to oversee city operations--but they still report to a mayor or council. Many corporations delegate day-to-day business to a COO--but when this is done, the COO is still subordinate to the guy whose job it is to schmooze with investors, interface with the board, and go out and make big deals with customers. In the context of a public transit agency--it is easiest if the "transit professional" works for the boss, rather than is the boss.
All this assumes, of course, that the director or GM is competent. If you have a leader who is more interested in empire-building than in running his organization well, that's a recipe for disaster. But that's true regardless of who gets put in charge--no organizational structure can compensate for incompetent management.
A good hire?
Is the hire of McFarlane, or the previously reported hire of Crunican, a good idea? I don't know. She drew a lot of criticism during her tenure in Seattle--but also had her fair share of defenders. Much of the criticism concerned the City's poor response to the massive snowstorm that blanketed the northwest in 2008--however, Seattle's books appear to be in far better shape than the organization she is reportedly joining.
McFarlane was instrumental in much of the capital expansion of the system. According to TriMet, "he led the development, design and construction of TriMet’s capital facilities, including the Airport, Interstate, I-205 and Portland Mall MAX extensions. From 1991 to 1998, he was TriMet’s Project Control Director for the 18-mile, $963 million Westside light rail project. Before coming to TriMet, McFarlane worked for Metro from November 1986 to February 1991 and helped manage construction for the 500,000 square foot $90 million Oregon Convention Center with landmark twin towers, successful public art program, and cost-effective design" (oregonlive.com). His role in these projects may not endear him to many critics of the agency, who would prefer a more back-to-basics, operational focus.
But what ultimately matters to any person in the role is
At any rate, I wish
And so, fellow Portlanders, will we.