How a 100-Year Old Company Became Agile During a Crisis

Leadership Profile
Written by Kate Schruth

Heidi Beck

Chief People Officer

Pacific National

June 2020

How has your organization responded to the new environment forced upon us all by COVID-19?

Pacific National responded early to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most significantly, we stood up our crisis management team on March 1, weeks before any of the peer organizations we compare ourselves to. By standing that team up early, we've been adaptable and at least appear to be making decisions fast because we thought through some of those decisions in advance. 

Our first priority was the continuity of our business and hygiene practices. Being an operational railway and a freight rail, it was absolutely critical that we were able to continue to operate in a safe way.

If you were on the ground and driving a train, you wouldn't have seen a single operational impact.


That's due to that thinking and planning we had done before half the country thought this was a significant issue.

We knew rail freight would be considered an essential service, as that was what happened in Europe and the U.S. So, while we were navigating some unprecedented circumstances, we were also figuring out what it meant to be an essential service very early. This forethought meant that we were able to drive the pace of action and push our peers in government and legislation to a timing that worked for us.

How are you approaching change strategically?

While soft measures are incredibly important, and we are well thought out in those areas, I wouldn't underestimate the importance of governance and the structural mechanism to make fast decisions. We didn't do anything new, but we did use existing forums to make things work faster. The ability to bring people together and adjust what they do with purpose and focus helped a huge amount.

I started using the executive team forums and changing them to crisis teams, as well as using our board and normal decision forums to push things forward and speed things up. We also kept the focus small. While a few people’s focus was taken away, that meant a lot of our strategic work continued because we gave some people the freedom to do their jobs or to take on someone else's job, but to do the role of the function they are going forward with.

Can you give us an example of how your team has risen to the challenge when it comes to your remote workforce?

I could not be prouder of the teams that have shifted into remote operating. We moved our corporate offices and anybody in staff roles to remote working straight away. The only exception was the executive team, who stayed on rotation. That was mostly for visibility at leadership level for the 2,500 employees who had to stay onsite to drive trains. 

We made sure that everyone who required technology that was company-owned had it. We also focused on getting the live run team split up, and the testing of those live run capabilities from home, which we’ve never had before, is going to really benefit us coming out of this crisis. 

Our learning and development team also pivoted and put out great material to support a working from home environment, and in general has been really focused on what people need.

Strategically, we divided our workforce into four groups and those groups included people from each of our functions, so that when we are able to start coming back, we will have four core groups who can start in a staged fashion. In the next six to eight weeks, that staging will be imperative in how we move into recovery.

How has your organization and team stepped up?

One thing that made us unique is that we had the original crisis management team in place about a week into the crisis. When I looked around the table, I realized that nearly the entire initial team was from my portfolio and that meant we could use the operational focus of HR to stay focused on our people. With that same focus, the decision making was streamlined with the advantage of a common culture and language from within the people portfolio.

I had government affairs working with HR on an analysis, and they came up with a policy recommendation that – once put forward to the crisis team – was 95% accepted. This is one of many examples of truly agile decision-making and planning from a company that's over a hundred years old, drives trains and isn't known for agile thinking.

How have you seen the refocusing of your leadership, and in this last month or so, what has this reframe led to?

The agility that I spoke about extended through our entire crisis team, and that agility is allowing us to continue to think ahead of the shifts that are coming. When a new shift comes, we are making decisions in what looks like incredibly fast ways, but in reality, we’ve been thinking about it longer than others.

We're about to move into a third phase, which is where the first draft of our continuity plan is nearly in place. This means we can start monitoring the performance of the business and the regular KPI's for new triggers, and be thinking about those next couple steps forward. It’s exciting because we can start thinking about getting back and adjusting for the future rather than continuing to focus just on today's or yesterday's challenges. 

How are you growing as a leader and what leadership principles are carrying you through?

I've applied the same principles I've always tried to apply to myself. Mainly, trusting my team and letting them lead. I have to trust the thinking and logic they come up with and give them a voice. I talked about looking around the table and realizing the large majority of our crisis team was from my portfolio. That meant when I spoke with our executives or our board, I had this voice that was ten times louder than I spoke with before. It meant I was able to sound like an expert on this pandemic and on health issues whereas eight weeks ago, I would have probably only told you health is important, and I’ve got someone who looks after it.


Special thanks to Heidi Beck and Pacific National.

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