Prepare for the unexpected problems

Prepare for the unexpected problems
Written by: Karl Sakas

As an agency advisor, I like to say that “if you take time to prepare for the expected, you’ll have time to improvise the unexpected.”

Sometimes, those unexpected problems are really unexpected—like when I discovered The Stowaway on my first trip volunteering on the Dover Harbor 1930s train car.

Take Time to Prepare for the Expected

It was my first trip as an apprentice steward—I was excited! After completing the non-profit’s stationary training earlier in 2008, it was time to prove myself with real passengers on a real trip… at nearly 80 miles an hour.

That day, I worked with three experienced volunteers who promised to show me the ropes. After finishing trip prep the night before, we were up at 5:00 a.m. to be ready for passengers by 7:00 a.m. I was tired… but still excited.

We’d be working our standard day trip from Washington D.C. to Williamsburg, Virginia, with stops in Alexandria and Richmond. We had 23 passengers, just shy of our 24-seat maximum capacity.

Everything Went Smoothly at First

The first few hours went by quickly, between serving drinks and two seatings of breakfast prepared by our volunteer chef in the onboard miniature kitchen. My fellow volunteers reminded me about what to do and when to do it.

Before I knew it, we were dropping off our 23 passengers for their sightseeing, and the Amtrak crew turned the train at the end of the line in Newport News, VA.

The lead volunteer noted that everything had gone smoothly. Now we’d have a four-hour layover in the rail yard—time for cleaning, afternoon prep, a fresh pair of socks, and a much-needed nap.

Around 4:00 p.m., Amtrak took us onward to pick up our passengers for their northbound trip. If the train wasn’t late, we’d get back to D.C. around 8:00 p.m.

In Williamsburg, passengers returned, chatting with each other about sightseeing and carrying souvenirs. One passenger, though, stood out.

…So You Have Time to Improvise the Unexpected

In her 30s, I didn’t recognize her from the southbound trip. I figured she might be a one-way passenger (did we even have one-way passengers?)—but in any case, nothing to worry about, because my colleagues at the door would have checked.

Yet something else seemed off—she’d brought a very heavy suitcase. That was doubly odd, because this was a day trip—you didn’t need a 50-pound suitcase. I wondered what was in it, as I stowed her baggage—the only suitcase in the coatroom.

Everyone boarded and the train got under way. It had been a sunny day in Williamsburg and passengers were in good spirits. (The hors d’oeuvres and early happy hour didn’t hurt, either.)

But after a few minutes, the unexpected 24th passenger gestured me over. Instead of ordering a drink from our open bar, she said quietly, “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.”

Uh Oh

I knew it!

She explained that she’d been visiting her parents in Williamsburg. When the train arrived, her dad suggested she get on the dark green Dover Harbor car at the end of the train, instead of the silver Amtrak cars. He’d said, “That looks like the nice one.”

Her dad was right—we delivered first class service on real china, compared to the microwave meals in the Amtrak snack car 100 yards ahead. But indeed, she wasn’t supposed to be there.

Finding a “Reason-Options-Choose” Solution

I consulted with the lead volunteer about what to do. He said since we had an extra spot, we could sell her a one-way ticket.

Thinking in terms of my Reason-Options-Choose model, I offered her two options:

  1. Pay for an “upgraded” ticket to D.C., to enjoy cocktail hour and dinner.
  2. Walk forward to the Amtrak section now, at no charge—but without the “that’s the nice one!” experience.

She seemed relieved that we weren’t going to kick her off the train, and opted to pay the upgrade fee to convert from Stowaway to paying customer.

After providing her credit card info, she settled in to enjoy our open bar and three-course dinner. Problem solved!

The other volunteers reminded me that our car would get uncoupled in D.C. while the train continued to New York, so she’d need to walk forward to continue to Pennsylvania.

So, What Was in the Heavy Suitcase?

When we got to D.C., I helped her bring her luggage up to the Amtrak cars at the front of the train so she could continue her trip.

My curiosity got the best of me—acknowledging it wasn’t my business, I asked why the suitcase was so heavy. She said it was paperwork for her job.

I asked, “What kind of work do you do?” She said she was an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia.

Yes, she was a “Stowaway D.A.”

Strengthen Your Support Structure

A decade later, that remains one of my weirder experiences as a Dover Harbor volunteer—but plenty of other unexpected things have happened since 2008.

You have to be ready for both the expected and the unexpected—but being part of a team means you’re not alone in solving those problems.

If you’re currently missing a confidential sounding board on your agency’s team—or it feels like you’re carrying all the weight yourself—you might be a fit for my agency executive coaching program. Get in touch today so we can start getting rid of that extra baggage.

QUESTION: How did you handle the latest unexpected situation at your agency?

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