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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Commentary: Bob Baulsir on leadership

Bob Baulsir stepped into the driver’s seat at Trinity Metro in April of this year when the agency’s board named him president and CEO. He previously served four years as Trinity Metro’s senior vice president.

Baulsir has more than 30 years of transit experience, including overseeing rail development, construction, rail facilities and bus rapid transit. He has managed transit system procurement, operations and maintenance facilities, and safety and security. Before joining Trinity Metro in 2014, he served as general manager of administration for the Nashville MTA and the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee. Baulsir also worked in public agencies in New York and Ohio. He earned a bachelor of science degree in business management from the University of Phoenix.

Trinity Metro is a regional transportation system that provides public transportation to meet mobility needs in Tarrant County. One of its key projects has been TEXRail, a 27-mile commuter rail line that operates from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport’s Terminal B. Service began earlier this year on that line.

Baulsir has been instrumental in keeping the TEXRail project on schedule and under budget. In addition to his oversight of the new commuter rail line, Baulsir is also responsible for procurement, facilities management and information technology, and now has responsibility for the agency and its $92.8 million budget.

What is your opinion about the difference between being a manager and a leader?

That’s a big question. I want to be a leader as opposed to being a manager. There are times we have to be a manager but hopefully we can lead them. If we have the right people and we empower them, then they should be able to manage the things that they are supposed to do without our intervention. Of course, there are always times that we have to manage people and we have to be ready to do that. But I suppose if we’ve got the right people and we lead them, that’s so much better than managing them.

We have to lead by example too. I can’t’ expect my people to put in a full day’s work if I’m taking a two-hour lunch or leaving early. It’s interesting because I’m the second person here but there is someone who beats me here every day. If I expect to have people to have good work ethics, then I have to lead by example and be out in front of them doing the same things that I expect them to do. We have to lead by example. We have to empower people and we have to have the right people. Sometimes you don’t have the right people.

If you have a good manager but they’re not a good leader, how do you develop them into a leader?

It depends on what their role is. A lot of what we do is so technical. For instance, we have engineers that are literal engineers. Everything is either black or white. They may not really be leaders and their job description is to be a stellar engineer and only do that; then you’re not necessarily a leader. It depends on what role they’re in. But if we have an engineer that is also going to manage a large group of people, then it’s a different set of skills.

In my opinion – do we always have to change people? I can’t say that’s the case. I think that’s an individual call depending on the situation; a little different at least from my perspective. I can think in our group of two different engineers: one of them is very personable and can kind of think in those situations where it might involve people. We’ve got another engineer that is very literal and it’s all a math equation. It really depends on what their function is. If they’re doing their job and it’s stellar as a pure engineer, we might not want to make them leaders because you’re somewhat corrupting.

I know that’s a different way to answer it, but I think we have to look at the situation, see what’s appropriate and the right thing for this person to do. Let’s not promote people to a position that’s not right for them.

How do you make a company not just good but great?

You have to understand what your goals are. You have to have good people. You have to empower people and we all have to be approachable. I like to feel that folks know enough about me to know that I’m going to talk with them and try to understand what they have to say. We have to listen to people. Some of the best ideas we’re going to get are going to come from those folks; maybe even being an entry level position. And there may be times we’re listening to folks that we don’t’ agree with – what their position is – but they still have to be heard. A lot of it is having the right people and engaging them, listening to them, understanding that they’ve got a good work life balance.

I was just talking to someone on his cellphone because he’s out of town. It’s his son’s final class before he graduates. He said “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.” and I said “No – you need to be where you are.” This is so important. If you can’t be OK at work then you can’t be OK at home. There’s so many of us that I think we have to remember or hopefully we know what it was like when we were younger and starting in those spots. And what didn’t feel good to us – that we do not do those same things. Hopefully we learned a lot and treat people like human beings. I was fortunate when I was young that I had a lot of what I would call the old-timers mentor me and save me from some of those mistakes where I didn’t touch the stove. Hopefully I’m old enough that I can do that for those who are willing to listen.

Is there a common mistake leaders make that you would caution leaders to be aware of?

Probably the two big things would be to learn how to be a good listener. You have to hear people out. Sometimes we think that we’ve got a preconceived answer to what their issue is. If we don’t listen to it we might not realize that we are completely wrong in our assumptions.

And probably the other thing is we get into the position that we make a decision where and how far a person moves up. One of the things that’s always bothered me is I’ve had some folks that were stellar at what they did; the absolute best, and we promoted them past where they should be. It was the end of their business relationship with us and they had to move on. So if I was going to look back at some of the mistakes that I’ve made it would really be those things.

Probably the one – as far as talking about people – it’s tough to tell a person you’re not ready, I can’t put you in this job. But there are times we see people that outperform everybody in the spot that they’re in and we can occasionally move them to a place that’s beyond where they need to be and then fail. That’s just a terrible thing to do and it’s something that we have to be aware of.

If you were to give advice that would enable a leader to contribute to Fort Worth as a city, what pops into your head?

I think it’s great to contribute to Fort Worth as a city because I believe that this is an amazing city. It’s all about relationships and being true to your values: practice what you preach. Be out there and make it real. People can see right through things that may not be genuine. You’ve got to walk the walk then talk the talk. It’s got to be real and you have to believe in it. I think there are a lot of good things we can do as a city that can help Fort Worth; certainly the work that we do at Trinity Metro. What could be better than helping Fort Worth in that there’s so much that we do? Trinity Metro connects Fort Worth with the world. You and I can walk or we can take the bus to the train, the train to DFW Airport, and we can go anywhere in the world. What better objective can you have? We take people to school to get them an education; we take them to work, shopping, to entertainment venues. This month of April we’re reporting ridership. We have this new partnership with TCC [ Tarrant County College ] – just shy of 12,000 trips taking students back and forth to school. That’s great for us helping the community: 12000 trips that are related through the TCC program that we have with EASYRIDE. Not only are they going back and forth to school but out of those 12,000 trips – it’s all students. Some of them are going back and forth to work, for entertainment, or shopping. So here we are as the transportation company helping the TCC students connect to school, to work, to entertainment, to shopping – to all those basic necessities of life. And we do so much of that every day. If you want to help Fort Worth and Tarrant County as a whole this is a great place to be because we’re in a great position to do that.

You recently took over as CEO. How does a new CEO go about setting priorities?

That’s kind of interesting. That’s not a new field for me. I’ve been through this before. Fortunately, I’ve been involved in Trinity Metro for almost five years now, just completed a billion-dollar rail project. So I had a jumpstart on who all the players were. I’ve been working on the rail project but I’ve been observing all the other functions that we do; and having grown up in this business and worked my way up from the bottom – going back to school at night – all these times working in all the jobs to step up to being CEO. In the four – almost five years managing the rail project – I got to see everything else we do and it’s been in mind all along. That hey: Here are some things we can improve on because I’ve done all these things before. So I think I’m in a unique position to make improvements, to partner with the city and improve some of those things; to look at what we’re doing right, what’s good, what needs to be improved.

One of the things that I’m pushing really hard is to go out and meet all the employees. We call it town halls. I did one today. And just to sit down with people and say, “Hey, I’m Bob, you’re looking at me, I’m in a suit and tie. You think I’m different from you. I’m really not. I’m approachable. I started at the bottom as a mechanic. I went to school at night for years to get to where I am. I’ve worked all the jobs in between.” Hopefully, I’ll never forget what all those things mean. A lot of times when I get folks that are moving up into senior management positions that have worked in the entry level positions I tell them it’s always been the same thing. I can remember as a new mechanic, as a journeyman mechanic, a bunch of us leaning on our toolboxes and seeing the CEO or the director of maintenance and we say, “See those guys? They don’t know what we’re doing. They are so out of touch with us.” We were so critical of them as entry level guys. It’s probably socially just what you do. So when we get new managers now, I sit them down and say if they worked their way through this, I’ll say do you remember when you started and how you looked at everybody and you go, “This guy doesn’t really know what he’s doing.” or “They’re not paying any attention to us.” Now you’re the guy that’s in that spot. What are you going to do that’s different? How are you going to be somebody better than that? And just make people think that hopefully we can stay in touch with what people are doing and understand their work better.

We’re just talking to everybody – knowing if you’ve got a sick child at home. I want to know when everybody’s birthday is. If I see someone at work and it’s their birthday, I go up to them and say “happy birthday.” They say, “I can’t believe he knew that.” Or go meet all the drivers. I had one of the supervisors come up to me and corner me with another supervisor and the one guy said, “I’ve been here 21 years and nobody has ever talked to us like this.” I’m sorry but we want to be approachable. Tell me what you’re thinking. Some of the best ideas, the best improvements you’re going to get aren’t coming from the top-level guys. They are coming from the guys driving the bus or selling tickets. We need to listen to them. It’s big.

John Wright, CSL, is president of Simple Leadership Strategies in Fort Worth. www.simpleleadershipstrategies.com

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