Ben Marc Diendéré – Chief Public Affairs and Communications Officer at Via Rail Canada
May 28, 2020-
One on one
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One on one with Ben Marc Diendéré, a rainbow all by himself, a human being filled with optimism, a culture lover, a committed philanthropist and above all a strategist in influence communication currently working at VIA Rail.
1. In this period of chaos, as a leader, what prevented you from sleeping?
Since my arrival at VIA Rail at the beginning of the year, I first had the barricade crisis which led to the railway’s blockade; this kept me busy and concerned. Immediately after the resume of services, literally the next day, we entered the COVID crisis management. What keeps me from sleeping during a crisis is without a doubt the safety, security and health of people. Passengers, employees, even the protesters during the blockade, their safety was my biggest concern. Perhaps it is because I come from elsewhere and I experienced it… I learned that at the onset of insecurity great social conflicts and individual anger arise. Everything becomes exacerbated … and then, it is difficult to predict social behavior. Look at the revolts in the United States and Brazil!
Therefore, the issue that feeds my concerns really is security. Just think of our organization which I consider very tactile. We are constantly in contact with people at our stations, on our trains, in our maintenance centers. We had to think of everything to keep everyone safe. We must, during a pandemic, even in minimum public service, keep our reflexes safe. In the field, our mobilized resources must prevent that the trains, as well as their working environment, become virus transmission hotbeds. And for that VIA Rail is very successful.
2. As a leader, in times of crisis, what personality trait is accentuated?
Positively, I fall into listening mode, a real sponge. I listen more… and more in depth than usual. Then I match that with patience. I become more patient and accept more comments or situations that I normally wouldn’t let pass by me. In a crisis, I accept that these moments exist, and I tell myself that I must navigate in there. Let’s say that I quickly fall into advisory service mode with my leaders who, in turn, must be in the action and must act. The consulting service area becomes very extensive to adapt and adjust to support the business’ head. You must feel what state of mind he or she is in to serve better.
My personality trait that is accentuated negatively is the fact that I become very suspicious inside my head. Suddenly, at the height of a crisis, I distrust simple things. When it’s simple, it can be a trap and I can tend to overanalyze and ensure that I have turned all the rocks before giving good advice; my goal is not to add to the surrounding chaos. Fortunately, it does not last!
3. What inspires you now on a daily basis?
Something that is very crazy maybe, I like the idea of pushing the boundaries forward in times of confinement. To think beyond Quebec, Canada, America. For example, everything that happens elsewhere interests me and appeals to me. Looking at how the pandemic is evolving here, yes, but especially elsewhere. It looks like it helps me to let go from my own pain. It drives me. The pandemic crisis has no borders. Looking at how others navigate, how those who went there before us developed and managed, inspires me. You must look at them and observe them. Through the experience of others, we learn and discover how they have addressed some of our present concerns. Sometimes our noses are too stuck on the screen and we would gain by observing the others to better move forward rather than wanting to single out our experience. The experience of others inspires and ignites me.
4. Who is your hero in this crisis?
Culture and the arts. We have no idea… imagine ourselves in this chaos without the arts, how would we have spent the last few weeks? We would all be at the asylum! (Laughs) It is crazy that this is a subject, as promising and important as it is, and that our authorities didn’t even start reflecting on it. If we observe the others, they tried to do differently by taking into account the distancing measures. Culture and the arts are my biggest heroes, but now, also one of the biggest injustices. When all this is going to be over, we will have to laugh, cry, and continue to be amazed. What we did to support our elderly in their last days or suffering, the reflexes we had, was to sing and rock them with music. How is it possible that we are not implementing a major project to think of new ways to fill performance halls, festivals, film sets, etc. They are the first vectors of identity and tourism in addition to being economical. When you are small in terms of population and therefore in terms of market, like Quebec and Canada just above the United States, you have very limited means and potential in the cultural scene. We must defend ourselves.
Besides, I applaud Quebecor’s initiative to launch QUB musique amid the pandemic precisely to preserve our cultural identity. We must remember that people’s boredom and their mental health are protected by culture, the access to quality entertainment and to the platforms we have imagined that reflect our image. And thank God I don’t have Netflix and I’m very proud of it!
5. What is the most interesting innovation that your organization has carried out during this tumultuous period?
This is no greater innovation at VIA Rail than the commitment we have kept to our regions and remote communities. Without our transportation services, some regions wouldn’t have their food, their postal services, and even their pharmaceuticals. However, at the operational level, VIA Rail had to react quickly to provide safe service to Canadians. New protocols that our teams took very seriously (for the common good) were deployed at high speed. It has become a daily habit for everyone: increased disinfection, social distancing, techniques to enter and leave the trains, etc.
6. For your organization, the broader economy, how do you envision the future in the short term?
You have to have faith in people. Public transport is tipped and spontaneously the passenger will think of taking the car and not to venture by train for example. We must secure people for a return to travel by train; and let’s be realistic, it’s going to be a difficult task. VIA Rail must play a leading role for Canadians. We have to encourage them to travel from one city to another. It’s a service that belongs to them. Local tourism will be key to revive the local economy. At VIA Rail, we have great projects to put forward such as the high-frequency train. A major infrastructure project for the modernization of VIA Rail that supports sustainable mobility. Finally, we will build on our key projects to rally the Canadian population and thus play a leading role in economic recovery. We are a public passenger transport service.
7. In closing, the question that kills, if you were François Legault, from here, how would you write the future?
I am calling right now, the Estates General of Quebec. This is the occasion for our new “quiet revolution”. These Estates General should clear our roadmap for the next 10 years. The day to day, we will settle it. We are already in the economic trough. If we start from the principle that we are in the same storm but each on a different boat, we need the Estates General to step back and have a global reading of the situation to avoid experiencing other situations that escape us. To overcome it, exceptional situations call for exceptional measures. We must shape the tomorrow’s community with businesspeople, unions, community circles and the public. My desolation in times of crisis is that we tend to throw stones at each other. We should not look for the culprits but work together, all the stakeholders together. There are not many of us, only 8.5 million, and this is our chance.
Redraw the future together. Take this opportunity to project yourself forward by questioning the status quo, by appointing a sherpa through different projects, questioning everything. It would be hard, but it should be done. It would become a motivating exercise for the population, and it would especially be unifying. And yes, we will all be fine if we all do our part.
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