She Wears Steel-Toed Boots:
NICOLE JAMES, BNSF RAILWAY
A TOUGH-MINDED OPTIMIST
Nicole James, BNSF Railway
Kaopua Sutton, March 2018
Nicole James path to success has been characterized by hard work, determination, and consistently taking advantage of every opportunity provided to her. James joined BNSF Railway in 2003 and has risen through the ranks to become the first female terminal superintendent in the history of the Galesburg Classification Yard.
If you ask James about her leadership style, she will tell you that caring for her employees is key. “People out here really don’t care what you know. They want to know how much you care first.”
Raised in Bronson, Iowa, a town of about 200, James was no stranger to the railroad industry. Two of her uncles worked for BNSF, and her grandfather had worked for the CB&Q. She
attended Iowa State University, and after taking some Business Corp classes in Transportation Logistics, she realized that railroading was her calling, too.
After graduating, James accepted a position with BNSF Railway. She admits she felt overwhelmed at first, but she set her mind to absorbing as much knowledge as possible; “asking questions, continuously learning, pressing myself.”
James’ determination and toughness are immediately apparent to anyone who meets her. “I’m a firm believer that it all comes from within,” she says, “so if I want it bad enough, I can figure out a way to get it. But I’ve got to be driven enough to get that goal.” James makes it clear that she feels her employer has rewarded her drive and work ethic.
As Terminal Superintendent in Galesburg, Illinois, James oversees operations at the second largest railyard on the BNSF system. The job of the yard is to classify cars on arriving trains according to destination. Cars are shoved over a constructed hill, or ‘hump’, and sorted onto one of 48 tracks in the ‘bowl’ to build outgoing trains. Every day, James and her employees build between 16 and 19 trains which depart over one of seven outbound rail lines.
When asked about a typical day, James explains that atypical days are the norm. She works eleven days on and three days off. Arriving at the yard between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m., James starts her day with routine morning reports and metric analyses. She takes time to dig into the numbers to analyze performance from the night before and throughout the week. The balance of her daily schedule usually includes conference calls, followed by face-to-face meetings with employees from throughout the yard.
James places a great deal of importance on the authenticity of the relationships she builds in the workplace. Supporting her employees, ensuring their safety, and establishing open and clear lines of communication are her top priorities. “It’s all about being engaged, listening to people, responding regardless if you can do what they want, or just providing feedback on the why’s and the why not’s.” She, in turn, entrusts those around her to make the right decisions when she is not present and to support the team, just as they support each other.
When asked about the challenges she faces as a female in a male-dominated field, James responds simply that she had to prove herself. When dealing with coworkers, she is consistent, approachable, and makes the effort to see each person as an individual -- gender is not a factor. When confronted with difficult situations, James relies on her ability to make rational decisions, explain them clearly, and to stand firm in those decisions. She balances this
no-nonsense perspective with respect and compassion for her employees.
James relies on the same determined spirit she brings to her work life to keep her home and family running smoothly. Her husband also works for BNSF, based out of Burlington, Iowa, and the couple has a three-year-old daughter. James says it has been challenging to juggle their careers and family, but she and her husband have built a strong support system.
“At the end of the day, it’s not Nicole James making everything happen out here. It’s the people who work for me. I need to understand their role, respect them, take care of them because that’s part of my job…As a team, if we support each other, we’ll all be successful.”