If you’re one of the millions of drivers who use the Ohio Turnpike each year, you might think of it as miles and miles of infrastructure. But it’s far more than that to Ferzan Ahmed, the Executive Director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission, who sometimes says “We’re not really an infrastructure organization. We’re a customer organization, and infrastructure is the service we provide.”
This progressive mindset makes OTC very attuned to investing in its greatest asset – people. And when they put out an RFP for a partner to help them with leadership development, they had an unusual perspective. While government agencies must follow pretty clearly-defined guidelines to level the playing field when engaging with new contractors, OTC wanted anything but a standard, run-of-the-mill training program. They knew, for instance, that a training-by-PowerPoint approach was not right for them. They also knew that chemistry and connection with the team would be critical to the success of the effort.
“We found the dynamic between Joe and Kathy extraordinary,” says Lauren Hakos, Training and Development Manager for OTC and part of the search committee. “They’re easygoing, they know their stuff and they make it entertaining. It was clear that they’re really good at what they do. And they had an approach unlike any other. There was NO presentation deck – just a very engaging conversation. The voting committee really liked what they saw.”
Then the real work started, and Switch’s creative, hands-on approach quickly won admiration. “We hadn’t done a lot of leadership development in the past,” says Hakos. “And any time you do something new, you expect some resistance. There may have been initial hesitation, but it very quickly faded – EVERYBODY wanted to participate when they saw how different Switch’s approach was.”
The leaders who participated in the process were divided into directors — the senior leadership team of the organization — and managers. Great care was taken to organize the groups in a way that would encourage the free exchange of impressions, ideas and feedback. For example, Executive Director Ahmed was part of the managers group so that directors – his direct reports – would feel more free to open up. “Instead of presenting to us, Joe and Kathy got us to talk to each other. We started with a discussion about the overall design philosophy, then delved into personal reactions,” says Ahmed. Switch grounded the participants in design thinking and organizational development best practices, addressing specific challenges the OTC team is facing every day. In order to embed the learning and make it personal, Switch created a custom program that had the OTC team thinking about their leadership journey — literally. Each participant selected a miniature wooden car that best represented their leadership style and customized their “leadership vehicle” throughout the six month program.
Using analogies built around cars underlined Switch’s focus on storytelling as a means of connection, and it resonated with the OTC team. Says Hakos “We examined what we could do personally and as a team, how we could build a better team feeling. We had multiple monthly sessions to help us assess ourselves individually, analyze our own strengths and weaknesses, figure out how to use it to improve the team.” These conversations led to individual and team plans of action the participants collectively felt accountable to, because they had created them.
“We examined what we could do personally and as a team, how we could build a better team feeling. We had multiple monthly sessions to help us assess ourselves individually, analyze our own strengths and weaknesses, figure out how to use it to improve the team”
After 7 months, the group had a roundtable session to share what they’d taken from the process. “Everyone on the team felt good,” says Ahmed. “Our team had identified respect and value for the work they do as important issues. What we needed to explore was, what do respect and value really mean? We knew we could make improvements. Joe and Kathy opened the lines of communication and helped us talk openly to each other.” Says Hakos, “We had a large group participating, and having both Joe and Kathy helped a lot. They fed off of each other well to keep the whole team engaged.”
The leadership series culminated with a “car show” that celebrated the participant’s learning and successes throughout the six month journey. Switch built custom display cases to showcase each team member’s car along with their Artist Statement explaining what they got from the process and what they hoped to take forward. All of the cars remain on display today – an indication of how well the process has resonated with the OTC team.
Beyond personal and team growth and development, says Ahmed, Switch helped the OTC team embrace the possibilities of change. “Look, change is always a tough one. People don’t like it,” he says. “But if you go through the process, you learn that change is ALWAYS happening. We’re a transportation infrastructure company, but the nature of transportation itself is always changing. Not to mention the overlays created by things like advances in technology, or intrusions from major events like COVID. So it’s not so much about saying ‘we want to change’ or ‘we don’t want to change,’ but asking ‘how, given the inevitability of change, do we achieve our mission?’”
With Switch’s help, OTC is on the road to fulfilling their mission of being both a great infrastructure and customer service organization, with strong, committed leadership forging the path ahead.