The WMATA Board has chosen a candidate for General Manager. His name is Neal Cohen and he comes from the airline and aerospace industry, mostly on the finance side. Is he what WMATA needs?
We don’t know a whole lot yet. He hasn’t even gotten the job; the board is currently negotiating with him over his compensation package. If he takes the job, he’ll be stepping into one of the region’s highest-profile positions to run an agency in desperate need of an executive who can turn things around.
There’s a biography of Cohen from a news release when he was appointed CEO of Orbital ATK, “an aerospace, defense, and commercial products company.” It says:
Mr. Cohen has 16 years of experience with Northwest Airlines, Inc. and US Airways, including serving as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, where he led merger and acquisition activities, restructuring, and profitability and growth initiatives. He also held a number of operating and marketing positions at Northwest Airlines. He started his career and spent seven years at the General Motors New York Treasurer’s Office.
So, he has financial and operational experience, but outside of the transit industry. Is that a good thing for WMATA?
The skills the General Manager really needs
Transit experience could be helpful, but is not the most important characteristic. Any transit veteran can at best have deep experience in one or two areas, like rail operations, bus, paratransit, safety, service planning, finance, maintenance, and so forth.
We can’t expect WMATA to find one person who knows how to do everyone’s jobs; instead, WMATA needs someone who can hire top people who can do their own jobs. And he needs the aptitude to get information from these top people and make good judgments based on it.
WMATA has problems. The General Manager needs to identify those problems by meeting with and listening to employees, managers, riders, transit advocates (including the Riders’ Advisory Council and the new Riders’ Union), local leaders, and others. Then, he needs to be able to candidly talk about the problems internally and externally, as well as how he’s going to fix them.
The local and federal governments will also have to invest funds in WMATA. The GM needs to confidently and credibly make the case to the public, elected leaders, and regulators at the Federal Transit Administration that the agency can be a good steward of public funds.
WMATA may have some people who need to stop being a part of the organization, and needs to better emulate successful businesses by being more efficient and effective. However, a business sometimes closes down unprofitable products; WMATA should not be cutting service. This is an agency with a vital public mission, and we can hope any executive from outside the industry would hold that public mission close to his heart.
The next General Manager has to understand that riders are very, very frustrated. They want Metro to work, but many are close to the point of wanting to burn down the neighborhood out of powerlessness. If Cohen gets and takes the job, he’ll have a big task ahead of him to rebuild trust through both effective management and open communication. From what we know so far, he could be the guy to do it.
Correction: The initial version of this post identified Cohen’s current company as ATK. It has been called Orbital ATK since a merger in February 2015.