Keeping the trains running: A leadership interview with the head of the Suface Transportation Board

Daniel Elliott is the chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, an economic regulatory agency that resolves railroad rate and service disputes, reviews proposed railroad construction projects and mergers, and has certain regulatory or administrative functions involving passenger rail, inter-city passenger bus, trucking, moving van, non-contiguous ocean shipping, and pipeline companies. Prior to his appointment to the board, Elliott was a longtime associate general counsel to the United Transportation Union. Elliott spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

What led you to the Surface Transportation Board?

I’ve always been involved with transportation. I had worked as an attorney for a labor union for 16 years that represented railroad conductors and engineers before coming to the Surface Transportation Board. While in the union, I practiced before the Surface Transportation Board, the National Mediation Board and the National Labor Relations Board within the context of transportation issues.  

Interstate commerce is how our country operates. Having strong railroads and reasonable services and rates are what makes this country go round. Our coal, our food and other commodities are transported by rail. Almost everything in our lives involves rail transportation, so it’s extremely important that we keep a healthy rail industry and that shippers have reasonable rates and reasonable service.

The Surface Transportation Board was ranked No. 1 for small agencies in the latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. How do you explain this success?

We’ve done so well because we have a dedicated and positive staff. Also, the directors and I believe in transparency. We’re very open. I try to make a special point of welcoming employees and really listening to comments and criticism. I open up my office every Thursday for two hours for any of the staff to come in to chat if they’d like. We also have a suggestion box, which has been more successful than I could have imagined. Openness makes everyone feel comfortable. We all do our best work when we feel appreciated and respected.

How else do you engage your employees?

I believe interacting with staff is important. Whether you’re in my office or I’m going around the agency and communicating with employees, I think people appreciate that you make that effort. If you talk with people, then they know you’re real and easily accessible. I also don’t believe in micromanaging. When my staff attorneys write decisions, we try not to chop them up just because the style is different or maybe there are some minor alternate interpretations. The staff brief me on issues,but for the most part I trust my staff’s judgment on how to handle the work.

What was your biggest surprise when you assumed chairmanship of the board?

The biggest surprise was the positive attitude of most of the employees. It’s not a very big group of people. We’re only about 150 employees. The place isn’t perfect, of course, but for the most part people are wonderful to work with and they work well with each other. You hear a lot of things about government employees, but none of the negative stereotypes were even remotely true.

Who are your leadership role models?

My former boss, Clint Miller, who was the general counsel at United Transportation Union, was a mentor and a role model to me. His leadership technique is similar to mine. He was always very positive. Even if you made a mistake, he would still lift you up. As long as you’re working hard and doing your best, he gave you more and more responsibility, instead of looking over your shoulder. I learned from him that being a positive leader was much more effective than being negative.

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Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.

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