Leaving One of Warren Buffet’s Tallest Redwoods For Good

How an Innovative Development Initiative Inside BNSF Railway Emerges as a New Model For The Post-Pandemic Workplace

This past January, after 15 rewarding years, I left one of Warren Buffet’s most successful companies, BNSF Railway, to pursue a new career at the height of the pandemic. Over the coming weeks, I’ll share stories about how this decision was grounded upon an initiative I was privileged to deliver inside BNSF from 2018-2020. The initiative – a transformational development experience for 9 BNSF employees – emerged as a powerful “win-win,” benefitting both BNSF and the 9 BNSF employees. Leaving BNSF is a natural offshoot of this good work.

My story begins with gratitude to the many great leaders at BNSF who believe deeply in building into the lives of others, leaders who then and now inspire me to “go forth” and continue spreading seeds of hope, growth, and real ROI for stakeholders. My story is their story.

 But you can’t tell a story without explaining the setting, and this one finds us in a new frontier – a Post-Pandemic workplace requiring us to learn new rules in order to be successful. Below are 3 principles – signposts – tested and validated inside BNSF that map out the road forward, a world where culture and work environments matter more than ever before. 

 First, Development Is Critical. Productivity Is at Stake.

Having worked as a performance management consultant with RLG International, I’d seen firsthand the value of investing deeply in people. When I started at BNSF, I was impressed by BNSF’s longstanding commitment to one critical, core value: “Make Development A Priority.” It’s a key reason BNSF separates itself from other companies to this day.

Now, as never before, strong development and cultural strategies are essential, due in no small part to the ever-increasing VUCA reality facing businesses worldwide: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. The digital revolution’s ever-increasing speed constantly strains personal and professional capacities. Add a year of Covid-19, and workforces have faced even more challenges, revealing another opportunity to “flatten the curve.” This new “curve” is a rising tidal wave – as high as 20 – 40% of an average workforce – of employee burnout, fatigue, disengagement, etc., all of which negatively impact performance and exact a profound toll on mental health. This growing wave, referred to as the “Echo Pandemic,” is a natural but difficult consequence of the most challenging year in a century. A strong development strategy mitigates against the productivity hits.

 Second, The Vision is Not to Survive, But Thrive.  Culture Drives Thriving and Performance.

While “development” comes in different forms, the highest goal is for employees – for human beings – not just to survive, but thrive. If the Pandemic revealed anything, it’s that we all long to thrive again. Companies like RLG and BNSF have long understood that new challenges rise daily, and new mindsets in leaders must emerge to help leaders cross the bridge into the next “new normal.” For humans to thrive in the Post-Pandemic workplace, development and culture strategies must take center stage.

At BNSF, leadership development includes an award-winning 2-day annual training, as well as charging every leader to develop their teams throughout the year. In this context, during 2018-2020, my leadership asked me to leverage my performance management consulting background to keep driving towards “making development a priority.” I reached out to my new partner, Marv Franz at New Vantage, and implemented a proven, innovative program, Leadership Circles. In truth, I wasn’t fully prepared for what happened next: imagine the best peer learning conversation you’ve ever had, built on trust and psychological safety, occurring every 6 weeks over the course of a year, resulting in powerful, life-changing experiences for 9 BNSF employees. The outcomes were both personal and professional growth for all participants, as well as tangible business outcomes for BNSF. We grew the Human Operating System: strengthening people strengthens the team, unlocking organizational potential and energy to fuel execution on shared organizational goals. It was real and it worked.

As the Pandemic extended into a full year, I realized the Leadership Circle methodology is what the Post-Pandemic Workplace needs. Leadership Circles create the space – a too often misunderstood concept – for real learning and authentic growth to emerge. After a 25-year career, Leadership Circle methodology is clearly a best practice for cultivating high performing teams to execute and deliver value, while simultaneously addressing head on the great human need in a Post-Pandemic workplace: Humans Thriving.

 Third, Serve The Common Good Best By Providing Real Value, Solutions, Results.

I’m forever proud of BNSF because its core vision is providing for the common good: safely and efficiently delivering the goods necessary to support the U.S. economy. The Transportation Industry never sounds sexy, but in truth, few things are more important. Covid-19 revealed that transporting the nation’s goods is an amazing structure of care for others – and mutually benefits a wide range of stakeholders. Similarly, Leadership Circles exist for the common good. At one level, Leadership Circles support leadership and cultural strategies that drive and execute a corporation’s vision, yielding clear ROI for companies. At its core, it’s also a transformative work behind the scenes, providing lift and expanding individual capacity for employees – those human beings – charged to carry out corporate vision. It’s ROI for people. 

Certainly, the viability and success of the Leadership Circle led to joining New Vantage, but it was a growing sense of obligation to share my learnings and experience that cemented my decision. My BNSF experience illuminated a new path for me to continue “making development a priority” for other organizations, a future where together we do the most good in the Post-Pandemic world.

Do you have insights into what’s helping you thrive in the new workplace? We would love to hear from you! Also, we want you to know that we’ve created the Post-Pandemic Leadership program to help organizations make this shift successfully.  Check it out and let us know what you think.

About Jim Hurlburt

Jim is a Senior Consulting Partner with New Vantage who brings 25 years of broad business leadership experience as a performance management consultant, business coach, attorney, and mediator. In his past role at BNSF Railway, a Berkshire Hathaway Company, Jim offered a unique blend of performance management consulting, coaching, mentoring, and oral and written advocacy to deliver consistent and outstanding business results for BNSF.