Photo courtesy Getty Images by fizkes

Photo courtesy Getty Images by fizkes

That old saying from Heraclitus, “The only constant in life is change” seems to be truer than ever. In addition to the rapidly escalating COVID-19 crisis (as of press time), we have seen a growing number of acquisitions in various industries, the ever-increasing presence of new technology in our workplaces, shifting job descriptions, and, at times, staff teams shrinking.

Change is inevitable, so what are the best ways to navigate it? Two school bus contractors who recently went through acquisitions and a transportation operations consultant shared with School Bus Fleet steps to take to make transitions as seamless and successful as possible.

1. Define Success, Form a Plan.

After defining what it considers to be success, an organization should create a strategic plan, in which it pinpoints its main goal and makes decisions on allocating its resources to pursue it. That plan acts as a guardrail in times of change — whether expected or unanticipated — in situations ranging from changes in rules and regulations to the need for a crisis response.

“Public agencies can easily deliver value to taxpayers if they’ve taken the time to clearly identify and articulate what success looks like, and then construct an actionable strategic plan to deliver on that success,” says Mark Aesch, CEO of TransPro Consulting, a firm that helps transportation operators improve their services and employee engagement.

One core element of a strategic plan, Aesch says, is “ruthless prioritization.” An organization that tries to deliver industry-leading value in too many areas will learn that multi-tasking reduces rather than increases efficiency.

“The Ritz-Carlton is focused on quality. WalMart is focused on price,” Aesch points out. “They don’t get confused about where they are trying to be great. Transportation departments, school districts, and other organizations are well served to ruthlessly prioritize where they want to be excellent.”

Other elements needed for a strategic plan include a comprehensive work plan and a quarterly score card to keep all staff members apprised of how the company is performing.

“Clear work projects and programs, a budget that funds them, and prioritized metrics that track work performance are all aligned in the pursuit of success,” Aesch says.

That means that department staff members need to understand how their work output contributes to the organization’s larger outcomes. For example, if a school district’s definition of success is 90% of students graduating within four years of starting high school, then the transportation department needs a plan to contribute to that.

Since a major contributor to educational success is showing up to school, an output goal for the transportation department might be “90% of students are delivered to school on time,” Aesch explains.

Then, a series of performance metrics can be applied throughout an organization to support that output. For example, a school district might have an organizational performance score card that contains metrics for on-time performance.

“This metric is important to the schools and reflects a performance area that aligns with the school bus department’s output,” Aesch says.

2. Create a Team to Handle Plans.

First Student acquired special-needs transportation company Hopewell Transportation in New Lenox, Ill., in November. The smaller contractor operated a fleet of over 200 vehicles for 20 Chicago-area school districts at that time and has since grown to about 240 vehicles.

A key to First Student’s success with such changes, says Chris Kemper, senior director of corporate communications at First Student, is that the company puts together a cross-functional team to own the process and smooth out transitions.

The team is managed by an integration leader who oversees each moving part of the acquisition — from the communication plan to human resources to training and onboarding — on a day-to-day basis until the integration is complete.

“It’s critical to us that new team members are in a position to succeed,” Kemper says.

As part of its communication efforts, First Student staff members participated in a “Back to School Bash” when they began a new contract with Hamilton County (Tenn.) Schools. Photo courtesy First Student

As part of its communication efforts, First Student staff members participated in a “Back to School Bash” when they began a new contract with Hamilton County (Tenn.) Schools. Photo courtesy First Student

3. Communicate Openly, Frequently.

Transportation company Go Riteway Transportation Group in Oak Creek, Wis., recently acquired two other bus contractors — Cardinal Buses Inc. in Middlebury, Ind., and Lazers Bus Service in Marshall, Wis., — and has successfully integrated the businesses. An instrumental part of that success was frequent communication.

Bob Zanotti, president of Go Riteway in Oak Creek, Wis., says that the process for integrating employees during an acquisition starts when the acquiring company is evaluating another company for purchase.

“We look for family-owned businesses that prioritize employees as the most valuable asset,” Zanotti says. “We then plan to meet with employees in a town hall format immediately before the acquisition goes public so that they hear straight from us first.”

Zanotti adds that Go Riteway conducts an annual employee engagement survey, and that acquired employees have indicated strong satisfaction with the company.

In addition to communicating thoroughly at the beginning of a new acquisition, Go Riteway works to be more visible than normal in the newly acquired operation so that it can stay apprised of employee relations issues.

“Inevitably, some things change, and it’s critical to stay ahead of unhealthy rumors by communicating proactively,” Zanotti says. “We work to honor the practices of the acquired employees as we integrate them into ours.”

Although that is a process that can take years, Zanotti says that trust from new employees “is earned over time through the courtesy, consistency, and fairness from our management team."

Thorough communication and managers being present is also essential when making difficult decisions.

“Employees have the capacity to understand the need for difficult business decisions and they are frustrated when they are left in the dark,” Zanotti says. “My advice to managers is to make difficult decisions with integrity and genuine concern for people and then step up and honestly communicate with those impacted.”

Kemper agrees that communication is a vital part of a transition plan. In fact, First Student tries to “overcommunicate” through several channels.

For example, when acquiring Hopewell, along with emails, letters, and in-person meetings, the company held a “warm welcome” event for members of the Hopewell team. The event included breakfast and a chance to meet members of the First Student team and ask questions. First Student also made a welcome video for the Hopewell team, and provided an app that gives location leaders a new channel to communicate to the team.

“We want to help the Hopewell team understand that while this is a change, as we combine forces, we already have a great deal in common, including our commitment to providing safe and reliable transportation,” says Will McDermott, the former president of Hopewell Transportation, who is now First Student district manager and maintains a senior leadership role at Hopewell.

4. Support Front-line Employees.

Go Riteway believes strongly in the inverted organizational pyramid, Zanotti says, with customers placed at the top, and front-line employees who serve customers as the most important internal employees. The relationship between them and their immediate manager is the most critical one in the company.

“If our front-line employees aren’t treated well, they won’t treat our customers well,” he adds. “We expect our front-line managers to be great facilitators, collaborators, and communicators. All other managers and staff must serve what is happening on the front line.”

5. Invest in Training.

At First Student, managers were given some frequently asked questions (FAQs) and trained on policy changes so they were able to educate the team on why they were made.

“As we received questions, we were able to address them quickly to avoid any unnecessary concerns,” McDermott says. “There was a learning curve, and this process helped us plan for it.”

Onboarding and training the Hopewell team took about three months, but it was only the beginning. That was reinforced with coaching, modeling of behaviors, positive feedback, and the introduction of key performance indications (KPIs).

“With this process, change soon becomes part of the culture,” McDermott says.

McDermott adds that First Student management staff provides resources such as hands-on training, job shadowing in new roles to help employees adapt, and make sure to listen for feedback or concerns.

6. Stay Positive.

It’s important to remember, of course, that change can be good.

With Go Riteway’s acquisition of Cardinal Buses’ operations, including satellite offices in Mishawaka, Ind., and Holland, Mich., and its 120 employees, the companies work smarter together by covering trips for each other and sharing maintenance resources.

“Together, we offer more value for major event moves [trips requiring over 30 buses] that neither company could have done alone,” Zanotti says. “We now have 150 coach vehicles in the greater Chicagoland area, so we can coordinate and respond as one company.”

A Strategic Plan’s 4 Core Elements

Photo courtesy Mark Aesch

Photo courtesy Mark Aesch

Mark Aesch, CEO of TransPro Consulting, a firm that helps transportation operators improve their services and employee engagement, breaks down the fundamental parts of a strategic plan and who is responsible for them.

1. Why: Mission, vision, values. This typically comes from senior leadership, such as a superintendent or CEO.
2. What: Clear, measurable success outcomes in the pursuit of the larger vision. This, too, comes from senior leaders.
3. How: This is the action plan defining what the agency will do to achieve those success outcomes and how the plan will be funded. This is typically designed by department heads.
4. Who: The staff members responsible for the delivery of the plan, the schedule they will adhere to, and metrics they will rely on to track progress. This typically involves entire departments working together. 

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