Female railroad leaders share insights on achieving success at NS
Jerri Parks was a high school dropout and single mother. Jennifer Goode was preparing to join the U.S. Coast Guard. Jamie Helmer was an electrical engineering student. Debbie Thomas was looking for a job with retirement benefits. Elaina Blanks-Green was an attorney with one of Virginia’s largest firms. Tracy Tidwell served seven years in the U.S. Army in transportation logistics.
Diverse abilities and experiences brought them to Norfolk Southern, where they have honed their skills and become company leaders. During employee panel discussions at NS office locations in Norfolk and Atlanta, they talked about challenges facing women leaders, finding opportunities for career growth, the value of having and being a mentor, and maintaining a work-life balance.
Highlighting NS’ commitment to workplace diversity, WiNS, an employee resource group that facilitates networking and professional development for the company’s female employees, sponsored the events.
Learn from each job
With 34 years at NS, Thomas, senior director operations service and support, said she is two years away from retirement. “I have loved every year,” she said, recalling that she arrived at Atlanta’s Inman Yard at 6 a.m. to apply for her first job at NS as an operator. “That was a retirement job for me. I had no idea I would end up where I’ve ended up.”
Thomas later became a yardmaster and worked in IT before moving to Atlanta to work in OSS, which plays a key role in customer service and support.
“If you really want to drive your career, it takes a lot of perseverance,” she said. Learning from each job is vital, she added. “Don’t leave a job too soon. You need to be good at all your jobs as you grow your career and gain exposure. Don’t take for granted the chance to learn.”
Helmer, promoted to manager of NS' Roanoke (Va.) Locomotive Shop in April, said she has worked in or with almost every NS department since joining the company as a Virginia Tech co-op student 21 years ago. She encouraged women to consider pursuing different jobs within the company, even ones not on their predetermined career path.
“Look at what you bring to the position with your unique skills and background,” she said. “Look at that open door rather than at closed doors.”
Search for opportunities, find your passion
Some 15 years after dropping out of high school, Parks earned a diploma from an alternative school at age 32 and went on to obtain a college degree in management information systems. That led to a co-op job in NS’ intermodal department. Now director intermodal and automotive systems, Parks talked about the importance of finding passion in one’s work.
“Financial security was my goal in my first job here,” she said. “Once I got that, I wanted to find something I was passionate about.” Her discoveries continued as her career progressed through IT, strategic planning, marketing, and back to intermodal eight years ago. “I wasn’t passionate about every job when I got in there, but I found something to be passionate about in those jobs.”
Blanks-Green, a general tax attorney, was working for a large law firm in Virginia when a friend told her about the job in NS’ taxation department. Despite having no experience with the rail industry, she could not pass up the opportunity.
“I was comfortable with being uncomfortable coming to an industry that I knew nothing about,” she said. “You have to be comfortable knowing the skills you’re working on and perfecting, and if an opportunity presents itself, walking into it rather than self-selecting out.”
Goode, a senior account manager in the industrial products marketing group, had thought her passion was the Coast Guard. “As a kid, I wanted to command my own vessel,” she said. However, she turned down a potential Coast Guard career 20 years ago to accept a secretarial position at NS’ Birmingham Yard.
Blazing a trail for women
Tidwell, who left the Army as a staff sergeant, started her railroad career as a crew dispatcher in 1993 with Conrail. She became a conductor/engineer before joining NS as a locomotive engineer after NS’ partial acquisition of Conrail in 1999.
“I basically started on the ground and worked my way up,” said Tidwell, currently terminal superintendent at Norfolk Terminal. She attributes much of her success at NS to persistence, hard work, and letting supervisors know she wanted to advance in the company. She eventually became the first woman to achieve the position of assistant division superintendent.
“It’s reaching for your goals and being dedicated about the job you’re doing, and making it known that you want more,” she said. “You have to put in the time and work hard for people to notice you.”
Goode, who worked two and a half years as a trainmaster, said she encountered male co-workers reluctant to accept a female leader. While NS over the past three years has hired record numbers of female management trainees and conductor trainees, women comprise about 5 percent of NS’ unionized operations workforce in an industry where men historically have held craft positions. Women make up about 20 percent of NS’ management workforce.
“It’s really good to put yourself in a position where you are completely out of your element, because that’s where you learn,” Goode said. Dealing with difficult co-workers strengthened her resolve to stand up for herself, she said.
“If I make a mistake, I own up to it, but if I think I’m right, I’m going to hold my ground,” she said. “That gets you a long way with people.”
Helmer, who works in NS’ Mechanical Department, said she also has dealt with sexism.
“When I first started at the shop, there were men who didn’t think females should be there,” she recalled. “Eyes are on females and seeing how they are going to make this work. You’re there to prove to them they’re not only wrong but to turn them into supporters.”
As an African-American, Blanks-Green said she has encountered both gender and racial prejudices. She confronts them directly. “You overcome bias by talking and showing what you know,” she said. “Become an expert in whatever it is you’re doing. You certainly want to be somebody who can participate in the conversation.”
Parks encouraged women to speak up in the workplace. “Find your voice, and use it,” she said. “You are paid to have an opinion. You owe the company to have an opinion.”
Finding a work-life balance
Difficulties in finding and maintaining a balance between work and family resonated with the panel and the audience.
“You’ve got to look at balance over time,” Helmer said. “You need to meet expectations at work and realize you’ve got other things going on and that it’s not possible to get balance every day, every minute.”
Blanks-Green, who has gotten married and had two children since joining NS, emphasized the importance of setting boundaries. “Don’t get so focused on being everything to everybody that you don’t set boundaries around anything,” she said. “Not setting boundaries is the quickest way to burn out.”
Learning from mentors
Panel members said mentors have influenced their railroad careers, and they stressed the importance of choosing candid advisers. “It’s an opportunity for critical feedback,” Helmer said. “Use it for personal development.”
Parks said she sought out mentors early and still relies on them to help her recharge. “I watched their behavior and wanted to learn from them,” she said. “I knew I could get honest answers so those were the relationships I looked for.”
Mentors may not realize the role they play, Goode said. “You could be mentoring someone each day,” she said. “Be aware of the messages you are sending. You could be directing someone on a career path.”