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Making strides in diversity and inclusion

May 2017

lead-photo-Thompson with-JWG-members
From left, Norfolk Southern employees Richard Johnson, Jason Pettway, and Starr Person pose for a photo with John Thompson, who has served on the NS board of directors since 2013.

From career advice to diversity and inclusion, NS board member shares insights with employees

With more than 40 years in the corporate world – much of that in senior positions with Fortune 500 companies – Norfolk Southern director John Thompson brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the company’s highly independent board.

NS employees had an opportunity to benefit from Thompson’s business insights during a town hall meeting in Atlanta. The forum, held in late April, was sponsored by the J. Whitaker Group, an employee resource group committed to the retention and advancement of black Americans at Norfolk Southern.

During the nearly two-hour session, Thompson offered career pointers and talked about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. A board member since 2013, Thompson said Norfolk Southern has made strides in increasing employee diversity, adding, “In a society of radical transparency, you can’t say you believe in diversity and inclusion without practicing it in the organization.”

Embrace your career journey

Thompson wrapped principles of diversity and inclusion around career advice gleaned from his experiences as a leader of companies including General Electric, Liz Claiborne, and Best Buy. He said “there is no pipeline process” for a straight career path from beginning to end.

“It’s messy,” he said. “You know you want to go due north, but how you get there is undefined.”

He advised Norfolk Southern employees to pay more attention to the career journey than to the destination – acquiring knowledge while experiencing the unknowns.

“Don’t rush the journey,” he said. “Practice being fundamentally sound at every aspect of the operation, and understand how everything you do relates to the pillars of the company’s strategic plan.”

Thompson urged employees to “take personal responsibility for your career,” and find something you love, are good at, and that the company needs. “If the enterprise doesn’t need it, that’s a problem.”

Diversity and inclusion begin with dialogue

He regaled the audience with personal stories about overcoming challenges of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. For example, perceiving he was excluded from after-work social engagements, he turned the tables “in characteristic style” and started doing the inviting.

“It all begins with dialogue,” Thompson said. “It is important to have authentic dialogue, with leadership on board.” Of Norfolk Southern CEO Jim Squires, he said, “You have a CEO who is on purpose about what he says and what he does about diversity.”

“It takes a fundamental belief that you’re going to use diversity and inclusion,” Thompson said, to create effective collaboration among people of different life experiences, skills, and cultures.

A culture of diversity and inclusion will be self-evident and will enable bringing “the whole self” to work, Thompson said. For instance, if you are LGBT or Muslim, “You don’t have to hide that. You genuinely feel that this is not going to impact you.”

Thompson’s conversation was facilitated by a panel of JWG leaders: Richard Johnson of design and construction, who suggested the idea of a town hall discussion about diversity featuring a board member; Starr Person of human resources; and Jason Pettway of IT.

CEO Jim Squires is pictured with director John Thompson

NS’ strategic plan and operational intent

Squires and Thompson continued the dialogue in a videotaped discussion following the town hall meeting.

During the videotaped session, Squires and Thompson discussed the foundational pillars of the company’s five-year strategic plan – safety, service, stewardship of resources, and growth. The plan was developed by Squires and his senior leadership team with hands-on involvement by the board.

“The plan is a real narrative about operational intent,” Thompson said. “It’s about the intent with customers in how we want to grow business, and it’s about the intent behind stewardship, both in terms of asset deployments as well as our people.”

The town hall session on diversity and inclusion, Thompson said, is a very big part of NS’ stewardship. “If you read about the strides that we made and the direction of bringing more women, minorities, and veterans into the company – 2016 marked the time when we actually saw material improvement in the strategy that we put forth around stewardship and our employee base.”

Energy and authenticity

Every effective diversity and inclusion program starts with the leader, Thompson said, describing Norfolk Southern’s diversity and inclusion initiative as timely and clear.

“There are good programs going,” he said. “The energy that I experienced by the people in the town hall meeting was intoxicating. They were excited to be here. They loved the message. I think the authenticity of the setting and the dialogue were very nice complements to what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Saying he was pleased, Squires noted that work at Norfolk Southern remains to be done on diversity and inclusion.

“This particular journey,” he said, “is never over.”