The Transit Leader’s Paradox — How to Stretch When Pulled by Opposing Demands

Transit managers have been balancing competing goals for many years. But that’s the point; it used to be all about balancing goals.

After a presentation at the American Public Transportation Association’s CEO Seminar and further interviews with additional transit CEOs, it is clear that today it’s more about managing the tension between contradictory issues.

Based on interviews, The Top 20 Transit Challenges that emerged: The Top Twenty Transit Challenges

  • Manage funding cuts
  • Follow new mandates
  • Engage/motivate employees
  • Implement service reductions
  • Meet short-term objectives
  • Innovate for the long-term
  • Get more done with less
  • Take time to coach/mentor others
  • Deliver legacy projects
  • Meet community’s real needs
  • Maintain standard IT platforms
  • Adapt software to address local needs
  • Become a regional mobility manager
  • Address each city’s issue
  • Manage generational and cultural differences
  • Adhere to uniform policies and procedures
  • Gain buy-in to the accelerated pace of change
  • Build a platform of stability
  • Meet the increasing demands of work
  • Have a fulfilling home life

How many of these challenges are affecting you? Most of the CEOs in the seminar said that they confront at least a dozen or more on a regular basis.

Review the list of the 20 challenges again, but this time read the list in pairs and between the first and the second, say, “… and at the same time …”

That gives you, “Manage funding cuts and at the same time follow new mandates. Engage/motivate employees and at the same time implement service reductions.” And so on.

As the challenges are read in pairs, it is apparent the challenges are paradoxes — they pull in opposite directions simultaneously.

The top 20 challenges can be reformulated into a list of transit’s top paradocixal challenges:

Transit’s Top 10 Paradoxical Challenges

  • Manage funding cuts and Follow new mandates
  • Engage/motivate employees and Implement service reductions
  • Meet short-term objectives and Innovate for long-term growth
  • Get more done with less and Take time to coach/mentor others
  • Deliver legacy projects and Meet community’s real needs
  • Maintain standard IT platforms and Adapt software to address local needs
  • Become a regional mobility manager and Address each city’s issues
  • Embrace generational/cultural diversity and Adhere to uniform policies
  • Gain buy-in to the accelerated pace of change and Provide a platform of stability
  • Meet the increasing demands of work and Have a fulfilling home life

Why So Much Tension ?

Professors Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis reviewed 360 separate studies on paradoxes and reported that paradoxical tensions are more prevalent and persistent when three forces are at work:

  • Competing Stakeholders — Leaders experience increased tension when the number of stakeholders with conflicting agendas increases. Many transit CEOs are pulled to meet the divergent demands of community groups, regulators, sustainability advocates, a regional board, etc.
  • Resource Constraints — Despite passage of a two-year transit bill, most transit leaders have to do more with less. They feel pulled to manage their budget constraints while at the same time boost employee morale, exceed riders’ expectations and invest in the future.
  • Accelerating Pace of Change — The speed of change is a bullet train to transit’s future. Yet, these changes in technology, information availability, demographic shifts, among others, create an avalanche of continuous change. Keeping pace with the warp-speed of change demands numerous initiatives that often compete with each other.

Any of these forces — or all three — can hit transit leaders on any given day. That’s why the paradox is less about finding balance and more about managing the tension of opposing demands.

Unfortunately, ongoing workforce development research suggests that many executives don’t stretch when they feel pulled by their conflicting issues.

Transit Research at the Top

At the end of the presentation to the APTA CEOs two years ago, they and their senior executive teams were invited to complete a 360 assessment, called the eXpansive Leadership Model (XLM), as part of research in the transportation industry. The objectives were:

  • Identify transit leaders’ strongest and weakest competencies
  • Determine if these competencies predict leadership effectiveness
  • Learn how well leaders actually manage paradoxical tensions

To date, 77 transit executives have rated themselves and invited 376 other people (boss, peers, direct reports ...) to rate them on the researched-based competencies assessed by XLM.

Of the 16 competencies assessed by the XLM, the four that transit executives scored the highest in are:

  • Execute with passion and courage
  • Choose responsibly
  • Serve ethically
  • Clarify objectives and expectations

 

The four competencies they scored the lowest in (often referred to as “developmental opportunities”) are as follows, with lowest scores listed first:

  • Embrace ambiguity & paradox
  • Know thyself & others
  • Regulate emotions
  • Cultivate innovative growth

Predicting transitLeadership Effectiveness?

To measure leadership effectiveness, the XLM asks seven questions related to how well the leaders actually lead. The scores of these seven questions were averaged to derive a composite leadership effectiveness score. The data was then analyzed to determine how well the XLM competencies correlated with perceived leadership effectiveness in the 77 transit executives.

The correlations for the highest and lowest scored competencies are seen in parenthesis below and in this type of research, correlations greater than .30 are considered significant, while correlations greater than .50 are considered high.

The correlations of the competencies that executives scored the highest in are:

  • Execute with passion and courage (.58)
  • Choose responsibly (.52)
  • Serve ethically (.43)
  • Clarify objectives and expectations (.52)

The correlations of the four competencies that transit executives scored the lowest in are:

  • Embrace ambiguity and paradox (.56)
  • Know thyself and others (.57)
  • Regulate emotions (.48)
  • Cultivate innovative growth (.59)

Although the leadership competency “Embrace ambiguity and paradox” is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness (.56), it is the lowest ranked of the 16 competencies assessed.

As Mike Scanlon, past chair of APTA and CEO at SamTrans remarked, “Are you telling us that we are least effective in the most important competency — the one that can help in today’s paradoxical environment?” Precisely.

Transit leaders are not alone in their need to develop this low-scoring skill.

The most common error was addressing one issue of a paradox independently of the other. The good news is, small improvements in managing paradoxical issues significantly increased firm performance.

Stretch When You Feel Pulled

Managing a paradox is analogous to sailing a small boat on a windy day. You get where you want to go by managing the tension between your hands and the wind — the “elements” of this paradox. Harnessing the tension keeps you moving toward your destination. Four ideas to keep you moving forward:

1. Look through other’s windows. Our point of view is not the only view. Understand that how we perceive our business challenge and environment at the present moment is not reality — it is our view of reality. Our view improves if we invite the “loyal opposition” to share their perspective. This will help develop the “flexible thinking” that Joe Calabrese, general manager of Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, identified as critical in today’s transit leader.

2. Fail fast, small and learn. Leaders who embrace contrarian thinking often conduct little experiments to test assumptions and address issues. As Charles Odimgbe, CEO of Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, pointed out during the interview, “We must think outside the bus. This increases our agility to respond rapidly to our changing environment.”

3. Make the abstract concrete. Paradoxical thinkers are not dreamers disconnected from reality; they are visionary leaders who are in touch with their surroundings.

4. Map the paradox. To help “map the paradox,” as an example, draw two small boxes on opposite sides, in the middle of a blank piece of paper. In the left, write “City’s Needs” and in the right, write the budget. Brainstorm the answers to four simple questions: What are the benefits of meeting the needs of the city? What are the benefits of staying within the budget? What might be the unintended consequences of over-focusing on the city’s needs? Or of over-focusing on the budget?

Answers to question one go in the upper-left quadrant; answers to question two in the upper-right; answers to question three in the lower-left; and answers to question four in the lower-right. This created a variation of what Dr. Barry Johnson called a polarity map. If there’s an upside and a downside to both sides, should you meet the needs of the city or your regional budget?

In one example, that rhetorical question was used to lead a discussion with city officials about the tradeoffs of focusing on one side at the expense of the other — an idea led to a breakthrough with the city.

Adapt these ideas to help you stretch whenever you feel pulled by paradox at work. MT

Dave Jensen is a transit consultant and executive coach who transforms leadership tools into client success stories.http://davejensenonleadership.com

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