Great Communicator

March 18, 2014

President Reagan earned the moniker “The Great Communicator” for his emotional speeches and down-to-Earth style in dealing with everyone he came into contact with. When I had a chance to sit down with VIA Metropolitan Transit’s (VIA) president and CEO, Keith Parker, and talk to him about San Antonio’s transit system he had some of that same enthusiasm and style.

It’s easy to see how much Parker loves transit and San Antonio’s system in particular. Parker lived the nomadic transit executive life early in his career, with senior positions in Stockton, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; and Vancouver, Wash., but his communication skills were honed when he became the COO at the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS).

While working in Charlotte, Parker held positions both at the transit authority (as COO and eventually CEO) and within the city government as assistant city manager. It was shifting between these two realms of public service that gave him the scope of transit’s reach.

“It gave me more of a sense of how transit fit as just a piece of all of the governmental services if you will,” Parker says.

“One of the things we really did well in Charlotte was the coordination between the police and the transit system, between the transit system and the public utilities … so getting those partnerships and collaborations together were things that were really enhanced during my time in the city manager’s office.”

After nearly a decade in Charlotte, Parker was contacted by VIA to bring his transit talent to San Antonio and help the system take the next step.

“It was we want to bring you out here and get our bus system up and running to a level that we would be comfortable with and we want to start looking at how we can move into multimodal transportation,” Parker says.

“That was pretty enticing to me to have a chance to go after something that was just on the cusp of what I would say being a first tier transit system, and in the short time we’ve been here we’ve been able to make some significant improvements I think.”

Veteran Advice

Parker has had the enviable or unenviable position of replacing industry legends when taking the CEO positions in both Charlotte and San Antonio. In Charlotte, he replaced Ron Tober, a 40-year industry veteran and former APTA chairman who had been the CATS CEO for the previous eight years.

Coming to San Antonio, Parker was being tasked to replace John Milam, a VIA veteran for more than 30 years and CEO for the past 16. Needless to say he had some big shoes to fill. So what was it like to step into those positions? Parker says the secret is in effective communication.

“In both cases in Charlotte and in San Antonio, I talked to both [Tober and Milam] quite a bit to get their perspective on what were the strengths and weaknesses of the agency and then try to learn and build off of what they had already established and then try to bring my own form of management and leadership,” Parker says.

Parker admits that he had the advantageous position of walking into an agency with a receptive staff and a supportive board.

“It’s not as daunting if you don’t walk in saying you’ve got all the answers and those guys had it all wrong,” Parker says. Instead, he says he tried to come in and build off the good things that were in place before he arrived.

Parker says that in both Charlotte and San Antonio he had the fortune of Milam and Tober to consult with when stepping into their positions.

“[John] and I talked, particularly when I first got here, quite often. And he’s very gracious. He still lives in the community. That also makes it pretty easy.

“Ron [and I,] we’re friends and we’ll always be. And Ron is legendary in the industry. So calling on him, he’s always gracious with advice and gracious with his time,” Parker says.

Establishing Lines of Communication

Parker says it’s a balancing act effecting change when coming to a new agency because in an agency that isn’t completely broken there is a resistance to change, while an agency with serious problems is more receptive to wholesale changes.

“I’d say whatever situation you walk into, you have to establish yourself and be true to yourself. And come up with ideas and a leadership style or management style that you’re comfortable with.

“And making sure that as you’re trying to make changes, you’re talking to the staff, talking to the board, talking to the public about what those changes are and why you’re doing them,” Parker says.

I asked Parker how much communication is needed before it becomes too much and he said it wasn’t a perfect science, that continual assessment is needed to know how much is too much.

“I don’t want to inundate very busy people with factoids of information that really aren’t relevant to what they need to do to be effective board members. So what I try to do is send them up the information that they need to make good decisions, to make good policy decisions about the agency because it is my responsibility to run the day-to-day operation.

“But I do want their input on those things that have significant consequences with them, so I want to make sure they are comfortable with the direction we are going in. Sometimes that requires special board meetings. Sometimes that just requires picking up the phone and talking for a couple of minutes quickly about a particular issue. Sometimes it’s just shooting off a fast email,” Parker says.

Parker says that one key to communication for public transit is not just conveying the information, but how it is conveyed.

“One of the things I try to make sure I do is when I go out to talk to board members I try to have as much information as I can as quickly as I can so that I can quickly calm their fears about any particular ongoing problem.

“So [knock on wood], for example, thankfully we haven’t had any situation like this, but if we had a hostage situation I would want to try to get information to [the board] quickly but more importantly get the correct information to them so we’re not creating a bigger problem.

“So as the situation becomes more controlled, I make sure they have the information they need so that they can then disseminate it to other people as well,” Parker says.

The key to establishing lines of communication, Parker says, is understanding what elements of information the board and the public find most important and getting those items to them.

According to Parker, hierarchy is also part of establishing these lines of communication, especially during a crisis so the agency knows who needs to be contacted and what information they need to know in the event a situation occurs.

Managing Communications

Coming into a new agency as he did with San Antonio in 2009, Parker understands that the staff doesn’t know him at all and that establishing communication as a manager and getting his staff to know he has their best interests at heart is very important as well — especially in the current economic environment.

“Everybody is nervous; they want to make sure the new guy isn’t going to come in and just start slashing all the jobs and getting rid of all of them and taking all of their benefits away and so forth,” Parker says.

“Part of what I tried to do in that regard was to have lots of meetings at different times of the day, different places, where employees could just come in and ask whatever is on their mind. And try to have a lot of free time with them to calm those fears if you will.

“Because that is like anybody else when you’ve got a family and responsibilities, you want to make sure your job and the things you’ve done in the past will be rewarded as well as having some opportunities, new opportunities begin to take shape.”

When it comes to managing, Parker likes to give his people the resources and freedoms needed to do their jobs well and step back out of their way.

He says he is a big believer in the scientific method of problem solving, “gathering information, understanding what the problem is, coming up with some alternatives, picking an alternative, sticking with it, and then again making course corrections as necessary, debriefing in the end to make sure things went the way they should have and if they didn’t what could we do next time to do better.

“And that’s the type of management style I try to portray. I don’t like sitting at my desk for hours and hours on end. I like getting out in the public to find out what things are important, what things we are doing really well and what things we could do better.  Getting in front of a lot of stakeholders, lots of everyday citizens. People who really support mass transit, and people who don’t. I like to hear from them as well.”

Parker says his philosophy is one of accountability where everybody understands what their roles are and what they are responsible for doing, but having the freedom to get it done without interference.

He is also big on collaboration among his staff, and is a believer that no matter what part of the agency you are a part of if you’re part of his management team, you have the knowledge and experience others can learn from.

“I like and enjoy seeing the staff debate over issues that may not be in their specific realm of expertise, but because they are senior management, I tend to think they’re smart people. And so I want them to have some good, sometimes even intense, debate,” Parker says.

“One of the worst things people can do or organizations can do is become too polite. No one wants to step on anybody else’s toes because that’s his responsibility, or that’s the finance guy’s or that’s the HR woman’s.

“I don’t get into that. I want people to get into it because they bring lots of good experiences and good suggestions and we can do best practices within the organization and also look for best practice opportunities from without.”

Another thing Parker likes is for his staff to be involved with the trade associations, especially the exchanging of information from people in similar positions at other agencies.

“I’ve spent a lot of time with my budget director recently saying, in fact even suggesting, why not convene a group of the top CFOs you know and get some feedback from them about what are some of the things they are doing during these budget crisis periods and we can possibly pick up a nugget or two of good information from those folks and then you can share some of the things you’re doing.

“I really like the whole get together, pool your knowledge and then try to solve problems in ways like that because there may be some really good opportunities that we’re missing out on and some things that we’re doing that people may learn from as well.”


Many directors I meet with come into a system and the first thing they do is go about putting their “team” together. For some directors switching agencies, it’s about bringing that team with them, for others it’s seeing what talent they have on hand and building from there. Parker sees putting together the right group of people as essential to leading an agency.

Parker says that having that team on hand is key when situations emerge where he can grab if not the whole team, three or four members and sit down for an impromptu meeting to talk things through.

“We are referred to as a leadership team and that is intentional,” Parker says.

“We have retreated together and done some bonding types of things and we will continue to do more and more of that.”

In the effort to assemble his team, Parker says they’ve had two major hires since he’s been there, one internal and one external, which he thinks is good.

“As we move forward I want the internal group to know that if they work really hard and they are competitive they will have a shot at getting some of the top jobs in the agency. And at the same time I want to go after the best and brightest in the industry so if that’s the case we will go get those folks,” Parker says.

Parker says one change the agency is implementing is eliminating the requirement to offer a position internally first before competing externally for it.

“It was pretty antiquated,” Parker says.

“We had to offer internal people the shot of the jobs first rather than just go out and compete on a national basis. Part of what I am doing now is making any of these senior level-type positions nationally competitive. And then that way we know we’ve got the best.”

Riders Code of Conduct

In late August of last year VIA introduced its “Code of Conduct” for passengers, 18 rules that its website says:

“…is a set of rules designed to improve the comfort and safety of our customers. Many of the items in the Code of Conduct are designed to promote courtesy and respect so all of our passengers have an enjoyable ride. The idea is to raise awareness of acceptable, and unacceptable, behavior. The Code of Conduct rules extend to all users of our buses and facilities, including VIA staff.”

You would think that VIA’s buses would have been rife with trouble for them to implement such a strategy, but it was the exact opposite, an effort Parker says was necessary to further communicate the agency’s commitment to its riders.

Parker says part of the idea stemmed from a visit to the agency from a group of secret shoppers.

“They were the typical secret shoppers, they come in and put the wrong fare in to see if the driver will challenge them, they ask lots of almost silly questions to sort of get on the nerves of folks. They call in to our customer service reps to see how knowledgeable they were. They went and looked into all of our public bathrooms. They looked at the cleanliness of our shelters, top to bottom.

“And they monitored what the driver did. Was the driver safe? Was the bus clean? And all those things. And they came back saying that we were the highest customer service level they had seen and they had done over 100 different transit properties around the country.

“However, our public doesn’t know that.”

Parker says that the agency also did an internal assessment of its safety and security and found that it had far fewer instances of fights and unruly behavior than many other cities of San Antonio’s size.

“But again the public doesn’t know that. So part of the reason we did the riders Code of Conduct was to one, give some attention to it,” Parker says.

Parker admits that the agency does know it has a handful of “knuckleheads” who are repeat offenders for misbehaving on the bus. Previous to the Code of Conduct, the agency was limited to kicking the person off the bus for that day, but now repeat offenders will eventually be banned from the service to prevent them from scaring off other customers.

“One of the big deterrents for people from not riding service is a perception of fear,” Parker says.

“What we wanted to do with this code is eliminate that perception, so that I can go out and say, ‘M’am or sir if you happen to be on a bus and a person misbehaves, we’re going to get rid of that person and you never have to worry about them again.’”

Since the code was implemented, the handful of incidents VIA was seeing on a monthly bases has dropped dramatically and the vehicle cleanliness has improved because of the requirement of spill-proof or screw-top containers.

Parker says riders have been very appreciative of the new rules, “I have had a whole host of customers say that was a great idea, I always wanted to be able to say, hey, put that drink away or put that sandwich away without a fellow customer yelling at me or cursing at me or what have you.

“And now people feel empowered to do that. And what we find is overwhelming compliance to the rules. Overwhelming compliance.”

Parker says that the Code of Conduct killed two birds with its proverbial stone: removing a small percentage of problem customers and alleviating the perception that riding the bus wasn’t safe.

“Realistically when you look at it in context, being on a bus is a pretty safe place to be,” Parker says.

“But we just have to make sure we continue to tell the public that and remind them that riding on VIA is a very safe way to ride.”

Industry Insight

As it is within his agency, Parker believes communication is essential for other directors looking for industry insight and just good tips.

“There are a lot of other good CEOs out there. Call on them,” Parker says.

“I am not shy about calling on people and asking how they’ve handled certain situations and what are some of the struggles there they’re dealing with.”

Parker also points to industry conferences and trade association meetings where people have a chance to sit down for a few minutes and see what is going on elsewhere in the industry. Of course, in the end he reminds others in his position to try and remain calm.

“Don’t ever let the days get you down too much or get you too high, because if you do, you are just going to be bouncing off the walls and ceilings and floors,” Parker says.

“Instead just try to keep that even keel and you will get through most of those challenges. There are very few things people haven’t seen before, and because of that you will get through yours as well.”