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Rob Dickson: 'Knocking down barriers'

Spring 2014

Rob Dickson, Central Division assistant superintendent, discusses switching moves with Dan Varnell, yard foreman, at DeButts Yard in Chattanooga, Tenn.


Wearing a crisp white oxford shirt and tan dress slacks, 6’2” Rob Dickson cut a commanding figure as he stood in the trainmaster’s office at NS’ Danville, Ky., yard.

Dickson, the Central Division’s assistant superintendent, had driven from his office at NS’ Sevier Yard in Knoxville on an overcast fall morning to follow up on a derailment that had occurred a few days earlier. Although the incident was relatively minor, he wanted to meet personally with the crew members involved. Despite his imposing presence, the former U.S. Army first sergeant put the men at ease as they entered the office.

“It’s not about me coming out here to speak with somebody,” he told them as they took seats around a table. “The key is we learn from it so it won’t happen again.” He also thanked the crew for their willingness to talk with him. He concluded the brief meeting by asking if he could do anything for them.

“There’s no reason to come out here and not like what we do,” he said.
In addition to getting a firsthand account of the derailment, the chance to deliver that simple message compelled Dickson to drive two hours from his headquarters office through the Cumberland Mountains to central Kentucky. Since becoming an assistant superintendent three years ago, Dickson has emphasized teamwork as well as accountability.

“It’s knocking down barriers of us against them,” he said. “People are accountable for their actions, but everybody has got to work together as a team. It’s in everyone’s best interests to go home safely.”

While in Danville, he took care of other business. He met with Danville trainmaster Willie Mullens to go over talking points for Mullens to use the next day when he represented the Central Division on a conference call with Western Region managers. In addition, he took time to chat with yardmasters and yard employees, effortlessly shifting gears from discussing setting up a new computer in the yard’s conference room to talking about an employee’s cage-fighting hobby. All the while, he remained in contact with other facilities throughout the division, which spans four states.

“You don’t go very long without getting a phone call or an email,” he said.

The Central Division is one of NS’ largest. It runs from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Sharonville, Ohio, and from Asheville, N.C., to Louisville, Ky. He’s often on the road three to four days a week responding to incidents, discussing ongoing projects, and checking in with crews.

“There are so many different things to get into where you can make a difference,” he said.

Along with the daily railroading, another important aspect includes counseling employees. Dickson and Division Superintendent Jeff Sliger frequently meet with employees dealing with marital breakdowns and other personal issues. In addition to recommending company and community resources, they listen and offer encouragement. Those conversations can be crucial in helping an employee manage a crisis while maintaining focus at work, Dickson said.

“A lot of things can preoccupy people’s minds, but we want to help them be successful at their job and also help them be successful at home,” he said. “That’s leadership.”

Sliger, Dickson’s boss, knows what it’s like to be an assistant division superintendent, having served in that position on the Illinois Division from 1997 to 2000.

“A good assistant superintendent either makes or breaks a superintendent,” Sliger said. “He has to keep up with day-to-day operations, overtime, budgets, derailments, injuries. He’s the first guy to get the phone call. If you don’t have a good assistant, the division is not going to run very well. It’s a tough job to be in with rules checks and discipline, but it’s a very important position for our company.”

After a stint in the Army, Dickson began his railroading career in 1994 as a conductor and locomotive engineer and later at Conrail’s Locomotive Engineer Training Center. Following the Conrail transaction, Dickson became a road foreman, then trainmaster, road trainmaster, assistant terminal superintendent, and terminal superintendent in Harrisburg and Chattanooga. His NS service was interrupted about 10 years ago when he spent 16 months in Iraq as a first sergeant with the U.S. Army Reserves.

“As a terminal superintendent, you have time to drill down, in detail, into the challenges of your terminal,” he said. “As assistant division superintendent, you have to rely on the expertise of those who work for you. You’ve got to be good at delegating responsibility and realize you can’t do everything yourself.”

While he enjoys his current role, Dickson is preparing himself to become a division superintendent and more fully engage his strengths in service design and terminal operations. He is taking online business courses through Pennsylvania State University and is considering majoring in industrial psychology. Being on the road helps because he can complete many assignments while on overnight business trips.

“Quiet hotel rooms are awesome to get a lot of work done,” he said.

A proponent of open communication, Dickson keeps in contact with local union chairmen and regularly engages employees in behavior-based safety processes, part of NS’ ongoing change in operating culture. He initiated a weekly conference call for more than two dozen division supervisors to discuss the positive changes occurring, including cost-saving initiatives and peer-to-peer safety efforts.

“I’m not a fan of conference calls,” he acknowledged, “but the benefits have far exceeded the time people have given up to be on them. We’re keeping the behavior-based principles in front of supervisors and letting them share the results of their efforts. It’s a good way to recognize supervisors in front of their peers.”

The ultimate payoff is the company’s success, he added, an accomplishment made possible by employees willing to put in extra efforts. “A good company doesn’t become a great company with a work force that does what it takes to just get by,” he said. “It takes discretionary effort by all employees.”

Over the past year, the Central Division has improved operating efficiencies and reduced costs, part of which Dickson attributes to maintaining good relationships with employees in the field. “If you want to know how to do something, talk to the people who do it every day,” he said. “It’s opened up a lot of communication. The challenge is creating a better quality of life while finding ways to make operations more efficient.”

Robert Munch, a locomotive engineer at the Cincinnati Yard and a local union chairman, says the tone from the division office has become more cordial. In the past, he said, disagreements with upper management sometimes turned into heated arguments.

“You don’t have that with Mr. Dickson,” Munch said. “He’ll explain why things were done a certain way, then I can call my members and say why that decision was made. It helps out a lot.”

Dickson’s accessibility impresses Vince Means, road foreman of engines. “He’s everywhere,” Means said after catching up with Dickson at the Danville yard. “He knows everything from road foreman stuff to trainmaster stuff and works really well with the crews. We can call him up about anything, from pulling locomotive event recorders to the budget. They feel comfortable with him and really appreciate it when he comes around.”

That’s the reaction Dickson likes to hear.

“We’re creating a culture where people want to come to work and feel comfortable expressing their opinions, and the barriers of ‘us against them’ are gone,” he said. “We’ve been very quick in the past to point out what’s wrong. If ADI (Aubrey Daniels International) has taught us anything, it’s recognize those who do it right.”

He pointed out, however, that leadership also involves making – and standing behind – decisions that might be unpopular.

“It’s easy to want to be the good guy all the time, and to say yes,” he said, “but sometimes you’ve got to go back and say, ‘It’s about what’s best for Norfolk Southern.’ Because when Norfolk Southern is successful, we all are successful.”

Theo McGhee, locomotive engineer at DeButts Yard in Chattanooga, shares a work moment with Rob Dickson, Central Division assistant superintendent.