Andy Byford (left) discusses PhD student Amit Deshwar's app for tracking the flow of TTC vehicles (photo by Fang Su)

TTC's Andy Byford to Engineering students: leadership skills are key

He doesn't have an engineering degree and admits to being hopeless at constructing the most basic IKEA furniture but Andy Byford, head of Canada’s largest transit system, knows that engineers with savvy leadership skills are a force to be reckoned with.

“Engineering as a discipline is amazing,” said Byford, Toronto Transit Commission CEO, who joined University of Toronto students on campus last week as part of National Engineering Month, “because [they] have to have an ability to think under pressure… think logically… see the bigger picture and be able to grapple with complex equations.”

Students with an engineering degree can aspire to top career positions, Byford told students, but only if they “can combine the fantastic skillset engineers have with the softer skills”. He focused heavily on people management and customer service abilities.

Hosted by the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead), Byford and more than 80 engineering students divided into small groups to tackle some of the TTC’s biggest challenges. In small groups, students debated solutions to popular transit topics such as: ‘Subways, streetcars or buses?’ to ‘How do you best allocate the TTC’s limited funding?’

Students also engaged Byford through an informal question period, where they could ask questions about his leadership and experiences at the helm of the TTC. They also explored his rise through the ranks of transit authorities in the United Kingdom and Australia.

“I think where the [London] Tube, and definitely the TTC, went wrong in the past was there was an absolute focus on engineering and on the disciplines of engineering – so actually just looking at the way the machines worked, and not paying enough attention to the softer side.”

Working closely with Byford, the goal was to have students see beyond the technical specifics of running the TTC, and critically understand the many aspects of leadership in large, complex organizations.

“It wasn’t what I expected. He was really down to earth,“ said Master of Engineering student David King, who had a chance to share his recent research with Byford. King, who studies civil engineering, is using pedestrian microsimulation to examine how slight changes in pedestrian behaviour – such as moving people to the back of a bus – can have greatly limit transit delays.

”You expect CEOs to have a stiff upper lip, but that’s not what you get with [Byford],” he said. “It’s a refreshing take, and I think it bodes well for a future vision for the TTC and our city.”

RJ Taylor is a writer with the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto.

The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief