The Executive Leader of the Train Station


The Executive Leader of the Train Station

As executive leadership business coaches, we at VIM Executive Coaching are always fascinated by stories of leaders, sometimes facing improbable or hopeless odds, and how they stood up to the pressure around them.

Recently, we decided to take a train ride across Colorado to a town in the mountains. So you are not held in suspense, I will share that it was Amtrak and a train called “The California Zephyr.” The name bears a humorous side note in that a Zephyr, by definition, is a breeze. The train was hardly a wind-storm of any kind. It was 3-1/2 hours late leaving Denver and 2 hours late to go back in the other direction. Once underway, both east and west, we were further slowed in that the tracks were supposedly affected by the heat. In spots we were reduced to about 10 m.p.h. Nevertheless, our fellow passengers were affable and we enjoyed each other’s company. After all, we were all in it together.

Management Catastrophe

As an executive coaching organization, working with managers at all organizational levels, we realize that what has happened to the rail system in America is nothing short of catastrophic. However “it” happened; it is a terrible shame. The Zephyr is the only purely east-west rail route in the United States. They have no competition. 

For the most part, the upper passenger seats and the lower sleeping berths of our trip were fully booked. People want to take the train. It is the ultimate ride sharing, easy on the environment, no hassles with TSA, relaxing, no lost luggage and best of all, it’s city center to city center. 

We are told that Amtrak no longer owns its tracks. The Zephyr is at the mercy of whatever freight trains claim the right-of-way.

You would think that Amtrak workers might be totally discouraged at the disintegrating railway, that they might be mean-spirited, angry and generally unpleasant. You would be wrong. They were all competent, friendly and professional. 

Of the negatives in terms of delays and slow-downs on my trip, the counter-balance was the executive who was the station master of the mountain town station of Glenwood Springs. She was not a catastrophe but a gem.

As the train pulled away from our station, I made it a point to write down several impressions of this exceptional executive. And, make no mistake about it, she is an executive. For many years she has been the station master of this beautiful old station, supervising a staff of four, summer and winter. It’s impossible to say how many passengers she’s helped. 

Against the Odds

Without knowing anything else about her, it was clear she was authentic. She greeted everyone who came to the ticket window with warmth and compassion. She cared to help them. She was organized and thorough in addressing the needs of each person who came her way. 

She was mindful of those for whom English was a second language. She showed one couple and their small child where to wait for the train, where they would depart at journey’s end, and how to claim their luggage.

I very much liked the way in which she responded to people and didn’t react. I overheard a conversation where someone asked her why the train was again late. How many hundreds of times has she handled that question (and I’m being generous)? Yet, she patiently explained why the Zephyr was delayed as though it was the first time she had ever answered the question.

Most funny was when the passengers were boarding the train the conductor chided her for selling more tickets than he anticipated. 

“Where will I put them?” he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. She was not about to refuse the railway added revenue.

Point is, she has not given up in her mindfulness, service or loyalty. And as the passengers boarded the train, she wished each one a pleasant journey. Every one she helped thanked her.

VIM Executive Coaching is in the custom of coaching executive leaders not station masters. Yet we learned a lot from her that day. No matter what ill-winds may affect what’s left of the California Zephyr route, they can count on at least one executive who is mindful of her role every day.

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Bruce Wolk