Bill Lhota Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007
When Bill Lhota was approached in 2004 to take over the Central Ohio Transit Authority, the organization was in bad financial shape and needed an ethical overhaul. Lhota says the organization’s former president had experienced “ethical lapses and resigned in a cloud.” The business community turned to Lhota, a retired 37-year veteran of American Electric Power, who was teaching ethics and doing labor relations work, to rebuild COTA’s reputation among its customers and its 600-plus employees. And after Lhota spent two years re-establishing open and honest business relationships, COTA secured additional tax funding through a ballot initiative in November 2006. That same year, it reported $84 million in revenue. Smart Business spoke with Lhota about managing with integrity.

Make inclusion a priority. I firmly believe that everybody in an organization has to be part of the success of the organization. I abhor silos; I’ve learned that from experience over the years.

In siloed organizations, the silos become insular and you get conflict. One employee tries to blame the other, and nobody takes ownership. I want everybody to be part of the team.

I believe in communication, communication, communication. I do a lot of walking around and talking to employees from the bottom to the top. In addition to staff meetings, we have a weekly COTA update. We limit it to two pages and the most important things so that people will take the time to read it.

Nurture your employees. Any CEO has a responsibility to develop future talent at all levels so that there’s good talent to grow the organization and provide for retirements and attrition. We focus very heavily on training and development.

Even in the midst of our severe financial problems, we created a training and development position because success is really dependent upon having a highly trained work force.

Find your vision. A leader’s got to be able to see the future and paint a picture of what he wants his organization to be two, three and five years in the future, and then work with the employees. No one person can do it all to achieve that vision and to accomplish it. Vision is something that you want to achieve down the line, and there are a lot of tactical programs that need to be instituted.

Ask for advice. We developed a comprehensive ethics policy that went way beyond anything that anybody else did and way beyond what is required by Ohio law. We went to the private business community and asked for their help in lending us experts to come in and look at everything we did.

We got 22 quality business leaders to come into our organization for several months and work with us to look at everything we did. We had over 100 recommendations, and I’m pleased to say we’ve implemented most of those recommendations. We did everything in the public domain so the community knew what we were doing.

Be a role model. Any initiative involving ethics has to start at the top and work down. You’ve got to walk the talk. People are watching how the CEO and the senior leadership are conducting themselves from an ethical standpoint.

You need a good ethics policy and a comprehensive ethics program so that people in the organization know what’s expected of them and what the consequences are if they don’t follow the ethics policy.

Another key part of an ethics program is a mechanism where employees can anonymously report ethical violations. We have an 800 ethics hotline, conducted by a third-party source, which any employee can call and register concerns over ethical issues. They know that it will be treated anonymously, and there will be feedback provided to their concerns.

Share your message. Every employee is provided with a copy of our ethics policy. When we kicked it off, we had ethics training for all of our employees, and every year, every employee and our board of directors have to undergo ethics training. It’s a continuous program; you can’t just do it once.

No question, there’s a cost to ethics training, but there is a much larger cost to damaging your reputation with ethical lapses. The training dollars on ethics are well worth the investment.

Focus on customer service. If you don’t have a customer, you don’t have a business. Like ethics, you have to make it a priority. The way we do it, you’ll see our report card to the community on our Web page. We have a quarterly update of that report card, and customer service is one of five items we measure: on-time delivery, customer service, reliability, safety and finances.

It’s out there where everybody can see it and can see that we have placed a priority on it. It’s not only transparent to the customer, but it’s also transparent to the employees. Employees see that there is an emphasis on it, and, like inclusion, each employee plays an important part in making that happen.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. You alone cannot accomplish a whole lot. You need people to be successful. I’ve always firmly believed that you win with people. You need to treat people in a firm, fair and consistent way, but don’t think that success is totally yours, nor is failure totally yours.

Give people authority, but hold them accountable. You’ve got to clearly articulate what the company’s objectives are, what an employee’s sphere of responsibility is, and hold him or her accountable for producing.

I don’t mean you just do it on an annual basis; it’s got to be continuous. When your employees are doing a good job, you tell them, and when they are not doing a good job, you tell them also. When you give them the latitude to accomplish what needs to be done, you get a successful company.

HOW TO REACH: Central Ohio Transit Authority, (614) 275-5800 or www.cota.com