A newly formed cross functional leadership team at VIA Rail used Triple Impact Coaching to examine an organizational challenge. The objective was to enhance and sustain customer focus within the company. The team helped create commitment and synergy across the organization that resulted in sustained changes in culture and mindset.
VIA is a passenger rail transportation company operating independently as a Crown Corporation since 1978. With a head office in Montreal, Quebec, VIA services Canada from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans and from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay. It has a workforce of more than 3,000 and serves a client base of 3.9 million passengers per year. VIA employees are loyal, dedicated and have a strong sense of pride. Many employees have long standing service. VIA has a strong traditional culture and tight network of employees who share and embrace the vision to be “The Canadian leader of service excellence in passenger transportation.”
- Changes in Canadian transportation and travel market, new technologies, new competitors impacting customer expectations
- Adapt to changing environment
- Achieve vision of being the Canadian leader of service excellence in passenger transportation
- Enhance effectiveness of Cross Functional Teams
- Cross Functional Team attended McGill’s Advanced Leadership Program & worked on Enhancing and Sustaining Customer Focus
- Participated in Coaching Program to facilitate reflection, understanding and integration of their learning
- Ensured linkage with other Executive Development initiatives and transferred their insights and lessons learned to organization
Actions & Results
Shared Vision Customer Focus
- Operations Planning Committee and 4 regional service teams participated in two day discussion session
- Meeting objectives were to examine how the organization supported cross functionality and how to re-energize the company with a clear focus on the customer
- Created synergy, alignment and commitment to the vision, mission, goals, cross functional culture at all levels
- Aligned to support culture changes, leadership development
New Structure for Stronger Customer Focus
- Energized and innovative workforce
At the time of this coaching project, VIA was undergoing major organizational changes. It was without a Chairman of the Board and had an interim President and CEO who had worked for the company for more than 25 years. The newly-hired Vice President Human Resources was developing the People Strategy that involved a variety of leadership development initiatives required for the company to achieve its vision.
VIA’s organizational structure was traditional and hierarchical. There had been a few rounds of downsizing that left some employees with a sense of disempowerment, lack of motivation, innovation and creativity. While they waited for decisions to be made about the Leadership Team, employees and managers felt a sense of urgency. They had operations and a business to run.
Some key initiatives were already underway. Managers had developed a strategic direction and key priorities. They implemented cross functional teams to help break silos and create a flatter, more empowering structure that would help employees provide better customer service.
VIA also provided leadership development for their executive and middle management levels through McGill University’s International Masters Program in Practicing Management (IMPM) and the Advanced Leadership Program (ALP). Triple Impact Coaching was offered to the participants in the ALP program to support their learning. It also provided a process to learn about themselves while they were working as a team on a company challenge. The Advanced Leadership Team (ALP) was comprised of six middle managers (five men and one woman) who represented most functions in the organization. They began their journey as a group of colleagues, not a formal team. Eventually they would become the ALP Team, a cross functional team working together to examine the customer focus challenge at VIA.
In a little more than nine months, the ALP Team learned how to lead change, create readiness, support and ownership of the customer focus challenge at all levels of the organization. Together they learned how to leverage their individual contributions to move their challenge forward. They aligned their challenge with the Executive direction that included a multiple of customer focus initiatives on organizational, strategic and tactical levels. They developed and facilitated a process that led to a two-day retreat. This meeting re-energized the organization, created a shift in mindset, and aligned people from across Canada around an action plan geared to sustainable change.
The company is now restructured to support a customer focus strategy, with the customer being discussed at every level of the organization. The ALP team continues to meet regularly and has become the think tank for customer focus initiatives at VIA. The company challenges, the approach taken and the actions and results are summarized on the chart above.
Members of the VIA Rail management team described the company’s transition as follows:
Our discussions, exercises and reflections during our ALP sessions at McGill made us realize that we all were a product of our organization’s culture and we shared a common mindset. If we truly wanted to benefit from our investment in ALP, and effect change, we needed an outside perspective, someone not from the same mold, to help us look at our challenges in a fresh way. We needed an unbiased coach, someone who could challenge us and help us challenge one another. We wanted a coach who would ask questions, make us think differently and keep us focused. We partnered with Patwell Consulting. The results can be categorized into four themes: teamwork, leadership, personal development and coaching.
We began as a collection of colleagues who transitioned into a team. When we first started working on our company challenge, we came up against differences in perspective, experiences, ideas and opinions about how to proceed. We fell right into old patterns of behavior that mirrored some of our other organizational challenges. We discovered that we were a microcosm of our own culture and organization. We would go from identifying a problem to bringing a solution without taking time to fully understand its cause and thereby considering other options. Coaching, experiential exercises, assessments and reflections helped us to see beyond our usual approaches and challenge the limits of what we could do. We learned to appreciate other people’s approaches to problems and their different perspectives. This opened us up to understanding our challenge from different perspectives. We learned to continue working as a team during heated, tense discussions and interactions by being contained, not taking over and damaging the team. By knowing the impact that our own individual behavior had on the team, we became more conscious of our choices and actions.
Leading and Influencing Others
Working on the customer focus challenge provided us with a great opportunity to learn to lead change. We spent time getting clear about our objectives, our communications. We became more structured in our approach and built agendas to keep our meetings focused. Our idea got traction and we were asked to design a meeting with the senior management team and the customer service teams from across Canada.
We realized that we knew what we wanted but we did not know how to get there. We were not process consultants and had never designed and facilitated a two-day meeting of this kind. Our Patwell Consulting coach helped us develop our approach. We learned how to communicate our ideas, convince others and package information so that people could engage and participate. The meeting was a huge success and the results exceeded our objectives. By the end of our session we had outsourced our challenge. Everyone in the room bought into the customer focus challenge and identified a plan to support the concept. This event re-energized our organization. We lit the spark that fueled the momentum and action for change.
Learning about myself while working on our challenge helped me acquire the skills of successful leadership: I learned to stop, slow down, reflect and observe myself in action. My old habit was to move quickly to respond without looking around. Now, it is my reflex to slow down and be more strategic when I plan and problem solve. I look for ways to collaborate with others and obtain their input and feedback. I think about the connections and the impact my decisions and actions may have on others. I am better able to identify critical challenges and take into consideration the individual, team, group, outside group and other perspectives. I believe that personal change happens by knowing my self. I control change.
Triple Impact Coaching helped me become more aware of my personal role as a coach in my work team. I hold back from acting and reflect on the approach first. I am now coaching my employees and grooming someone in my group on how to manage the human element of his work. He is technically very sound, but he needs support to set objectives and incorporate more people in his decision making processes. I am coaching him on how to leverage the strengths of his team. Coaching helped me to recognize people’s strengths, and leverage different styles and preferences to lead, manage and work effectively in a team.
The full VIA Rail story is available in the book Triple Impact Coaching.
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