The next MBTA boss will need to infuse the transit system with international know how while operating in an essentially parochial system.

Culture Warrior: The New MBTA General Manager Needs A High Pain Tolerance And The Ability To Get Along With Unions

March 5, 2017

WANTED: Innovative CEO-type who's passionate about upending inveterate workplace culture and maybe knows a thing or two about running a subway. That's more or less the want-ad Gov. Charlie Baker and MassDOT posted last month when they launched the search for the MBTA's next general manager.

Experts and T-watchers in Massachusetts have seen many GMs come and go, some with relative success and some with their tail between their legs. Here are some of the top traits A GM will need to get the job and the major challenges they'll face once they do.

High Tolerance For Pain

Former state Inspector General Gregory Sullivan said Baker needs to find "somebody who can bear the pain. Because it's a tough job."

"You need somebody who can really put up with a lot of aggravation, a lot of controversy, protests, fights, bureaucrats, politicians. Everybody's all over your back," Sullivan, now the research director at the Pioneer Institute, told WGBH News last week at the T's board meeting.

Cultural Transformation

According to the T, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack is in the process of hiring an executive search firm to find a "CEO-style GM who will be focused on changing the agency's culture to be more about delivering service to customers and making improvements to the system."

“As the MBTA enters this next phase, the time is right for a transformative and permanent General Manager with a strong business background and experience in delivering major capital programming and providing direct service to customers," Baker wrote in a statement announcing the search panel on Feb. 16.

The call for a GM that will treat riders as customers, and push T staff to follow suit, was echoed by others who want to see the T transform.

"The first thing that person is going to take on is dealing with the T culture. This person, whoever it is, really has to understand a few things about the T," former Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi said.

"I think this person needs to instill a culture of innovation. Instill a culture where the T understands that it's basically a business that is operating on behalf of the people, that the riders are customers, and thinks in those terms," Aloisi said.

Be A Business-Oriented Person

Aloisi suggested the next GM could hit the ground running if they can combine transit background with "nuts and bolts" knowledge of transit systems in general or the MBTA itself.

"Someone who has an understanding, obviously, of the way the T works and metro Boston would be useful and important. Someone who's sort of very much on top of best practices nationally and globally in the transit world would be really useful for us," Aloisi said.

Aloisi said a good model for the board to look at would be the last few directors of MassPort, who he said have been professional managers with savvy and expertise on transportation issues.

Stick around

"You have to have someone who's really passionate about trying to overhaul the T. And it's a big, big job. It's like the Normandy Invasion with General Eisenhower. It's a complicated task, you have to approach it with real commitment and passion," Sullivan said.

And that means keeping the job long enough to make a meaningful attempt at reform. The MBTA is currently under the leadership of interim GM and Bain alum Brian Shortsleeve. Shortsleeve replaced GM Frank DePaola when the veteran transportation official retired in May. Before that, the T lost GM Beverly Scott in the aftermath of the disastrous 2015 snow season. Few other recent T chiefs have had tenures longer than a few years.

"I think there has to be a consistency. It has to be a longterm deal because if you look back over the years, it looks like every year there's been a new general manager who has new vision for the MBTA and you need someone with some longevity,"  Boston Carmen's Union President James O'Brien, the leader of the T's biggest union, said.

Charlie Ticotsky, policy director for advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts, wants the next GM to express an "overall vision and leadership" to go beyond just maintaining the current system.

"I think a dynamic leader needs to come in and lead the organization and hopefully for an extended period of time. We've seen so much turnover over the past few years and I think getting a commitment to service for a certain number of years, maybe at least five, hopefully even more, I think would be important for the next GM," Ticotsky said.

Employees Are Not The Enemy

Since creating the Fiscal and Management Control Board in 2015 to oversee the agency and winning concessions from the Legislature to allow for more outsourcing, Baker has pursued opportunities to transfer some T's services – such as counting cash – to outside contractors who can do the jobs more cheaply. This privatization has put the governor and Shortsleeve at odds with labor unions, who are seeing in-house jobs being taken up by non-union third parties.

"You can't bring in an ideologue who's going to be at loggerheads with the collective bargaining unions at the T," Sullivan said, adding that there soon will be further discussion of outsourcing things like bus maintenance on the T's agenda. Sullivan is supportive of outsourcing, but warned that fair negotiations with unions needs to take place.

"If you are going to be the leader of a company or an entity like the T, you cannot possibly be at war or at odds with your workers, with the unions. If you want to go down that path, you will not succeed," Aloisi said.

Know The Challenges

"It's the same challenges that we have in front of us today. It's repairing the infrastructure, getting the new equipment, funding issues. It's no different than it was ten years ago. People have to invest in the MBTA. Invest in the infrastructure and you have to find it," O'Brien said.

Aloisi said that on top of the everyday struggles of operating the system and considering further outsourcing, the next GM should concentrate on improving bus service while implementing the planned new fare collection system that will allow easier payment on buses.

The MBTA isn't saying just yet when they want to hold interviews with candidates or when they want to have the new GM in place.

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