Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff (center) talks with King County Executive Dow Constantine while riding the light rail from Angle Lake station in September 2016. (Ian Terry / Herald file)

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff (center) talks with King County Executive Dow Constantine while riding the light rail from Angle Lake station in September 2016. (Ian Terry / Herald file)

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff gets a $550-an-hour coach

It’s so he’ll get along with employees after allegations of verbal aggression, profanity and sexism.

By Mike Lindblom / The Seattle Times

Sound Transit is paying a management coach $550 per hour to help Chief Executive Officer Peter Rogoff get along better with his employees.

The sessions are part of the “leadership-development plan” that elected officials on the transit agency’s 18-member board required March 1 after members disclosed that Rogoff underwent internal investigation of alleged profanity, verbal aggression and sexism toward agency staff.

Rogoff makes $328,545 including this year’s 5 percent inflation raise, but he was denied a performance bonus because of the turbulence.

Five months later, board members haven’t given a public account of his progress. Soon they will have to discuss whether to renew his expiring three-year contract.

His leadership mentor is Andrea Luoma of Port Angeles, with Accomodare Consulting, according to a work agreement obtained by The Seattle Times through the state open-records act.

Her going rate is $550 per hour, up to a maximum of $35,000 through Dec. 31. She cites a worldwide clientele, including large hotels and Visit Seattle.

The stakes couldn’t be higher to develop a CEO who runs on all cylinders and attains regional prestige.

Puget Sound-area and federal taxpayers are spending $90 billion over a quarter-century to build and operate a three-county transit network, featuring eight rail extensions passed by voters in 2016.

Seattle enjoys the nation’s fastest-growing transit demand, including a 6 percent gain this past year in Sound Transit train boardings. But runaway inflation, a cumbersome planning process and community requests for more Seattle tunnels are placing future timelines at risk.

Luoma has met weekly with Rogoff, said agency spokesman Geoff Patrick. This goes further than her proposal, which allowed for online and phone sessions.

Rogoff was also required to take a Conversational Intelligence C-IQ test in the spring and fall to measure progress, says an April 2 memo signed by Board Chairman Dave Somers, Snohomish County executive.

And the CEO has undergone four monthly sessions with a board committee of Everett Councilman Paul Roberts, Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus and Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas, as directed in the March 1 board vote.

These meetings are squeezed into Rogoff’s normal schedule, which lately includes trips to Washington, D.C., lobbying for a critical $1.1 billion grant to build the delayed $3.2 billion Northgate-Lynnwood line. It’s one of 17 projects nationally where the Trump administration has delayed funds that Congress authorized.

Rogoff also received a lei and welcoming audience Aug. 3 in Hawaii, where he reassured supporters that the Honolulu Elevated Rapid Transportation elevated-rail project will be transformative as in Seattle, where daily ridership on Link passed 80,000 boardings this year.

King County Executive Dow Constantine and a headhunting firm recruited Rogoff in late 2015 for his analytical skills and knowledge of megaproject funding, as a congressional staffer and former federal transit administrator. The choice elicited virtually no board or public scrutiny, as Constantine called him a superior candidate. But staff complaints about his personal style trickled into the human-resources department almost immediately.

“I think we were having some cultural seasickness,” said board member John Marchione, the Redmond mayor. The board expected Rogoff to add urgency and move faster in creating the regional network, he said.

But soon Rogoff offended some employees, because of what the investigator and board members deemed a confrontational “East Coast” style, which contrasted with the patient tone of retired CEO Joni Earl. Rogoff used profanity and vented that “people around here are so [expletive] lazy.”

A clearer explanation might be Rogoff’s background rising through hierarchies in the nation’s capital. The improvement plan speaks to this, ordering him to listen and build relationships while “moving away from relying on position power to accomplish agency objectives.”

In her consulting offer, Luoma said passion isn’t enough, and clients need alternative ways to communicate and build enthusiasm in their teams. “Neuroscience is providing the most cutting-edge insights, tips and tools previously unknown and certainly never taught,” she wrote.

Luoma was picked after interviews with about eight bidders, said Patrick, the Sound Transit spokesman. She hasn’t replied to requests for comment.

Rogoff “doesn’t wish to comment ahead of the conclusion of the board’s process,” Patrick said. Most complaints are now more than 2 years old, and Patrick said none have arisen this year.

Rogoff mentioned in a March 1 statement, “My workplace demeanor in early 2016 was the wrong approach. I take full responsibility for it.”

Friction is commonplace between new CEOs and the organizations they join, said C.B. Bowman, CEO of the Association of Corporate Executive Coaches. The skills that propel hard-charging people to the top aren’t necessarily the skills to stay there, she said.

“The head of Google received coaching. Most successful people in the C-Suite are being coached.” It’s a burgeoning field, with 30,000 practitioners of varying skill levels nationally, she estimates.

An hourly fee of $550 would be normal for top-tier coaching, she said. But Sound Transit should have prepared Rogoff for the agency’s culture at the outset, she said, instead of waiting so it comes off as remedial work.

New employee surveys rate Rogoff higher than before, said Marchione, an agency board member. “Peter’s been very responsive, and more connecting to the staff, over time,” he said.

Marchione also praised the CEO for disclosing bad news early about Lynnwood and Federal Way project-cost increases, a stressful task that requires staff collaboration.

“Be hard on the problem, not on the people,” Marchione said. “That’s where I think I’ve seen Peter grow the most. He’s still focused on the big projects at hand, and developing soft skills.”

In other consulting deals, the North Seattle firm MacDonald Boyd was paid $2,400 a day in 2016-17 to coach Rogoff at times, while he and chief of staff Rhonda Carter launched an internal “change leadership team” in an executive shake-up.

And former Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis — nicknamed “The Shark” for swimming through murky government process — is under a two-year contract at $250 an hour and a limit of $99,995 total to provide strategic and political counseling.

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