William J. Lhota overcommunicated to help Central Ohio Transit Authority get through a crisis Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

William J. Lhota had his work cut out for him when he took over as president and CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority in 2004.

“When I came, we were running unbalanced budgets,” Lhota says. “We were running deficits that could not be sustainable. We had to secure additional funding. Without both of those, more funding and a balanced budget, we would not have had any opportunity to be successful.”

Lhota needed to build hope in his team of more than 700 employees. But in a slightly different way than a typical for-profit business owner, he also had to build a base of support in the Columbus community.

He began his effort by sharing a lot of information.

“I’m a firm believer that you share as much information as you can, good and bad, about your organization,” Lhota says. “People can deal with things if they have information. It’s that vacuum that’s created by no information when people start filling in the blanks and that leads to all kinds of problems.”

Lhota knew that he would have to make some pretty painful decisions to get the agency back on strong footing. He didn’t shy away from talking about those things as he shared his vision for where he believed the agency could get to.

“If you have a vision of where you want to go and some concept of how you want to get there, you can go through some pretty painful things,” Lhota says. “We had a vision to grow this organization, but we knew to get there, we had to balance our budget and we had to do layoffs. We had to make the cuts and do things smarter and be more efficient.”

Communication was the name of the game for Lhota. At every opportunity, Lhota talked about his organization, what needed to be done and how it would be done.

“We started out from day one that we were going to communicate internally, and we were going to communicate externally,” Lhota says. “We would be open and receptive to any media inquiries. We went out of our way to communicate with the media. You have to tell people everything you can about the organization.”

When you’re faced with a tough situation and you need to do a lot of communicating, Lhota says you need to take time to think about your audience and where they’re coming from in listening to you speak.

“I’m communicating with my leadership team, I know they have a certain baseline that they are all coming from, so you can communicate one way to them,” Lhota says. “If I’m communicating to an all-staff meeting or an all-employee meeting, I may have to paint the picture a different way and go into more detail where they don’t have the background that the leadership would have.

“I like to keep it simple. I’m not trying to impress anybody with knowledge. It’s getting the message across so everybody clearly understands that if we’re going Northeast, when they come out of the meeting, they know we’re supposed to go Northeast.”

When Lhota speaks, he makes sure he’s prepared. But he doesn’t like to use notes to guide his remarks.

“I don’t want presentations to come across as stilted,” Lhota says. “I want to know 90 percent more than I’m going to talk about.”

A thirst for knowledge and a curiosity for the world around you is a great tool to have as a leader.

“I like to understand how things work,” Lhota says. “I spent a lot of time early on trying to really understand what makes a bus company run. So I’m not one who has three pages of notes. I’ll have some bullet points and highlights to talk from. Hopefully, it comes across as sincere but also comes across that I understand what the issues are.”

By being open with his people and taking the time to really understand his business, Lhota was able to secure new funding and help COTA balance its budget for 2006. He feels his ability to open up and lay it all out was the key to getting through the crisis.

“If people are willing and comfortable sharing the good and the bad, you can usually work out most problems,” Lhota says. “If you sit down collectively and bring wisdom to the issue, I don’t know of anything that you can’t solve.”

How to reach: Central Ohio Transit Authority, (614) 228-1776 or www.cota.com