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GM Shadow Day - A Firsthand Account

Michael Dobson
SEPTA Senior Operations Planner

If you think you'd like to be the SEPTA General Manager some day because the job might be easy, I'm here to tell you to think again.

On Thursday, June 28, I was fortunate enough to be selected to "shadow" General Manager Joe Casey for the day. It was an unprecedented opportunity for an employee to observe exactly what our General Manager does on a typical work day. I was granted open and unrestricted access to not only Mr. Casey's schedule and duties, but also to how SEPTA operates on a daily basis at the highest management levels. When the day was over, I was impressed with not only the pace and occasionally intimidating "The Buck Stops Here" responsibility of the G.M., I was equally impressed with the personal degree of consideration and unique philosophy that Mr. Casey brings to the job.

Since the monthly public Board meeting was slated for that day, Mr. Casey's schedule included several items directly related to the 3 p.m. public meeting. After a brief and informal greeting in his office, Mr. Casey and I, along with the AGM of Public and Government Affairs, Fran Kelly, headed to the G.M. Team meeting where, for about 40 minutes, several administrative and operational items were discussed.

After the Team meeting, Mr. Casey and I met with Board Chairman Pat Deon to discuss the afternoon's Board meeting. In a candid and no-nonsense fashion, Chairman Deon shared his thoughts on several subjects and predicted that the Board meeting would go smoothly since all the administrative matters had been resolved at last week's Administrative Committee session.

After leaving Chairman Deon's office, Mr. Casey, with me "shadowing", conducted a closed-door meeting with IG Jim Bannan and AGM Jim Sullivan about an on-going confidential investigation. Mr. Casey took a pro-active, hands-on role in protecting the integrity and interests of the Authority. With the IG meeting adjourned, and with no time to spare, Mr. Casey switched gears and chaired a meeting on the upcoming high speed rail conference being held in Philadelphia. Senior Director Pat Morris briefed Mr. Casey on the event schedule where, amongst several other tasks, he will introduce Mayor Nutter at the conference.

After the high speed rail meeting, my division head and SEPTA CFO Rich Burnfield, with several intimidating looking financial documents in hand, came in to discuss pension investments. The subject matter was dense and complex, and I was soon impressed not only with Mr. Casey's at-hand command of the complicated investment data, but also his ability to repeatedly shift gears from one detail-filled issue to another without skipping a beat. During the meeting, Mr. Casey's Executive Assistant, Ann Gaffney (who Mr. Casey acknowledges as his "other right hand") interrupted the meeting and urged Mr. Casey to come into the connecting G.M. Conference Room.

Entering the G.M. Conference Room, a loud "Happy Birthday, Joe" was delivered by several of Mr. Casey's direct staff as well as some remaining high speed meeting attendees. Everyone enjoyed a piece of cake, and the moment provided a necessary, albeit brief break from meetings and G.M. duties. It also gave me a candid, personal insight into how much Mr. Casey's staff genuinely likes him. Mr. Casey thanked everyone, and after reminding them to NOT remind him of his birthday next year, it was back to work for all.

The next meeting was already assembling, and it was a big one. SEPTA is proposing a major change to an existing bus route, and there's lots of public debate on both sides. And where there's public debate there's almost always elected representative involvement. This matter was no exception, and AGM Kelly provided Mr. Casey with a full perspective of the political leanings on the issue. Being the G.M. of SEPTA is an unavoidably politically-sensitive position. Mr. Casey recognizes that the political component of the job is essential. After hearing all the facts, Mr. Casey advised everyone of how he wanted SEPTA to proceed.

As the G.M., Mr. Casey will be the one who both the public and the politicians will seek out should SEPTA's decision proves unpopular. After a long and detailed discussion about the bus route it was (finally) lunch time.

After lunch, Mr. Casey spent time at his desk reading and answering some emails and checking the local news for anything relating to SEPTA. As you might expect, the G.M.'s inbox can fill-up quickly, and if he doesn't stay on top of it, it could be trouble. With the email work done, Mr. Casey was briefed by AGM Luther Diggs on how the search for a new chief of SEPTA police is progressing. Another meeting with CFO Burnfield and AGM Sullivan regarding investments bonds and matters of internal audit followed, and we were on our way to the Executive Session of the Board which meets just prior to every public Board meeting.

At the Executive Session, the Board is updated on significant, sometimes confidential, matters of the Authority by staff members. After members of SEPTA's IT Department/Emerging Technologies section gave an impressive demonstration of a yet-to-be released iPhone application for SEPTA customers, it was 3 p.m.and time for the public Board meeting to begin.

There was some discussion as to where I would sit once the meeting began, but much to my appreciative surprise, AGM Neil Patel was gracious enough to give up his seat at the Board table for me (Thanks again, Neil!). The opportunity was invaluable in the sense that I experienced what it's like to sit and interact with the Board in a setting where SEPTA's obligation of public service, trust and responsibility becomes transparent and open to public scrutiny. The Board meeting was, as Chairman Deon predicted, mostly uneventful, with no public speakers and no major items on the agenda, and so it adjourned just after 3:30 p.m.

After taking a few photos in the Board Room, Mr. Casey and I headed back to his office. With most official business (for me, anyway...) closed for the day, Mr. Casey and I had a chance to talk. We discussed the history and legacy of SEPTA General Managers, going back to David Gunn, and how each one left the G.M. position.

When presented with the opportunity to become G.M., Mr. Casey revealed that in order to accept the appointment he needed to be confident he could make a difference not only for the Authority in general, but also for all of us employees - the people who work hard everyday to serve our customers. On that note, I shared with Mr. Casey that, from this 28-year employee's perspective, his tenure has been very positive and productive, and that he enjoys the respect and admiration of the SEPTA workforce, something not easily attained (or maintained). And while he and I agreed that no one can ever satisfy everyone all the time, the goal is to be confident in your abilities and decisions in trying to effect positive change, and let your record tell the story.

A brief meeting with AGM Susan Van Buren on personnel and compensation matters followed, during which Mr. Casey again exhibited an impressive degree of detailed knowledge on issues that many would not assume the General Manager to possess.

My day with Mr. Casey was winding down, and it ended on an emotional note. After signing so many business documents that come across his desk, like Travel Vouchers and Staff Summaries, Joe signed a number of personal bereavement sympathy cards addressed to the loved ones of SEPTA pensioners who had recently passed away. He explained to me that, while the task is somber - especially when he sees the names of those whom he has personal memories of - he embraces the duty as a way of expressing his personal recognition and gratitude for the service that former SEPTA family members gave.

With my G.M. "shadow" assignment concluded, Mr. Casey and I parted with a handshake, a few personal and private words, and with me gaining a comprehensive understanding that the position of SEPTA General Manger is many things. It is diverse, it's busy, it's hectic, it's always interesting, it's enjoyable, it can be taxing at times, it's often difficult, but it's likewise always fulfilling... and if you're still interested in applying for the job, just know that it is anything but easy.

Mike and Joe Casey head off, ready to take on the day's busy agenda.

Joe, Mike and senior SEPTA staff meet to discuss the Authority's role at the High Speed Rail Conference.

Mike takes time to enjoy the view from Joe Casey's desk.

Joe Casey and his "shadow" Mike pause for a photo following the Board meeting.

A full day almost over, Mike and Joe head back to the office to reflect on the shadowing experience.