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Leadership Lessons on Communication: Through the Death of a Trespasser

Last Friday I was in Washington, D.C., for meetings with my favorite organization—The International Franchise Association’s Institute of Certified Franchise Executives (ICFE) Board of Governors.  I’ve been a member of the board for several years and even had the chance to chair the board a few years ago.

We finished our meeting by 1:30 p.m. and I went to the closest subway station and caught the Metro train to Union Station to catch either the Amtrak or the Marc train to Baltimore.

I learned years ago that it is often less expensive to fly to Baltimore and catch one of the trains to D.C. versus flying to D.C. The Marc costs $6 for the 35 minute ride, while Amtrak is a much nicer ride, although about $25, and offers Wi-Fi, plugs to charge your electronics and a café car.  This trip I went cheap.

About five minutes out of D.C. we felt a bump.  The passenger across from me said, “That’s not good.”  No sooner had the words left his mouth then the train stopped.  We were in the middle of nowhere, in a ravine, with only woods in sight.

Five minutes later the conductor on the train announced that he would be back with us within three minutes to give us an update on what was wrong.  Soon he came through the cars announcing that we had hit some debris on the track and the engineer had to go outside the train to see what happened.

Not long after he said that Amtrak officials and the police were on their way.  Suddenly we realized that we hadn’t hit just ordinary debris and a whisper start spreading that we must have hit someone for the police to be on their way.  I had the theory it might be Jimmy Hoffa … after all these years!  No one else shared my theory.

By this time everyone was Googling to try and find out what the debris was.  Someone saw the Washington Post blog that we had hit a man and killed him!

A short time later, which seemed like an hours, the conductor announced that there had been a fatality and the police had closed the tracks between Baltimore and Washington.  One news source said that there were five buses on their way to pick us up and there was this eerie quiet on two of the busiest train tracks in the Northeast.

By now I’m losing all the power on my phone and am depending on everyone else’s phones for news.  There was one power outlet and passengers took turns charging their cell phones based on who had the least power.  Three hours and 12 minutes later, after a few more non-news updates by a conductor who simply kept us appraised of what he knew, the train slowly started to go again.  A southbound Amtrak train whizzed by and we knew the tracks were now open.

Less than five minutes later we pulled into the station—only to hear what the Marc conductor reluctantly said was plan B, C or whatever.  There had been damage to the front of the train and Marc was afraid the damage would subsequently cause damage to the stations still ahead before Baltimore. We all would have to get off the train and wait for the next northbound train.  Amtrak would also honor our $6 tickets to get us to the airport.

By this time several opted to head back to Washington, D.C., and Union Station—still only one stop away.  People were hugging, believe it or not, as many people had now met new friends they would never forget.  Most of us missed our flights but a kinship had been created with people who had been total strangers three hours earlier.

I’m wondering if you picked up the leadership lesson I learned.

Communication!  The Marc conductors were amazing at keeping us updated—regardless of the news.  I wonder if we all take care of our customers the same way.

It wasn’t Marc’s fault that a trespasser had been on the tracks.  It wasn’t Marc’s fault that the police closed the tracks.  Marc employees were in the dark, I believe, as much as we passengers were.  But, they continued to update us on anything/everything they knew and learned.

Do we do the same for our customers?  All of us can cite times when one of our technicians was late or in a fender bender or tied up for whatever reason.  All of us can tell countless stories of how much better customers can be when we do a good job of communicating with them, regardless of what the bad news might be.

Most of the people on the train will never forget this event and tell stories about it the rest of their lives.  It is sad one person died.  Yes, most of us missed our flights, but only one family knows they will never see their loved one again.

Putting things in perspective and continually trying to see the leadership lessons we have every day helps us get through the toughest of situations.  That works for our customers, too, when we do a job of communication.

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