Kari Kirchhoefer, VP of Industrial at Union Pacific Railroad. Photo courtesy of Union Pacific
If you’ve been in the workforce for several years, chances are you’ve done your fair share of job hopping. As Kari Kirchhoefer puts it, “In today’s world, most people don’t stay with the same company for their entire career.”
Yet for her, the opposite is true. Kirchhoefer is VP of Industrial at Union Pacific Railroad, where she’s worked for 26 years. While this lengthy tenure may sound unusual, Kirchhoefer says it’s actually quite common at Union Pacific.
“Employees don’t leave,” she explains. “When you ask someone how long they have been at the company, it is usually directly in line with how many years they have been out of college."
What is Union Pacific doing to make employees want to stay? According to Kirchhoefer, “employees find value in variety of career paths available at the company, along with the organization’s strong benefits and ethical values of the company.”
She adds that for her, the people at Union Pacific are her favorite aspect of her job. “We spend a significant portion of our lives at work. What makes it worthwhile is working with people who care about the company, the customers and their fellow employees.”
Kirchhoefer recently caught up with Fairygodboss. She shared what, exactly, Union Pacific’s ethics and opportunities look like (hint: for her, this meant having the ability to spearhead new flexible working and job sharing policies at the company); her favorite career mistake; and the most memorable piece of career advice she’s ever received.
How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?
I started in this role in August 2018. Prior to this role I led Union Pacific’s Customer Care and Support team in our customer service center. I have been with the company for 26 years.
What’s the most unique or interesting aspect of your job?
My job allows me to interact with Union Pacific’s external customers; I get to view Union Pacific from the customer’s eyes. It provides an opportunity to see where customers find value with our product offering and what we need to do to improve based on the customers’ thoughts.
What’s something you’re especially good at outside of work?
I love to coach. I grew up playing soccer and for many years coached my daughter’s competitive club team. I enjoyed watching the girls’ progress in their skill set and learn to be part of a team, but even more so I enjoyed watching them grow into confident young women. I stopped coaching when the girls hit high school, but am proud to see so many of them going on to play soccer in college. That takes a strong work ethic, and I like to think I helped to create strong, confident, team-oriented woman for the future workforce.
What’s your favorite mistake?
When I first started my career, I was young and ambitious and wanted to conquer the world. UP had a career path laid out and I wanted to move quickly through the jobs and move up.
However, I came to realize that if I didn’t spend enough quality time in the job that I was in, I didn’t have the chance to see how the decisions I had made played out. I didn’t get to see what decisions were good — and ones I should keep moving forward — and which decisions didn’t hit the mark. This meant I didn’t learn how I should adjust my style or decision making moving forward. It was a valuable lesson learned.
What’s the one career move you’ve made that you’re most proud of?
About 16 years into my career at UP I was asked to leave the RR and go work for a subsidiary of the RR. At the time, there was a perception that if you took on a role like this, you would be out of sight/out of mind, and many were skeptical about taking what they saw as a risk.
This couldn’t have been further from the truth. This was hands down my most difficult and rewarding job I took on since joining the company. It provided the opportunity to run a small company of roughly 100 people. I had the opportunity to wear multiple hats as I oversaw all areas of the company (IT, HR, Operating, Finance & Marketing and Sales).
I learned a valuable lesson while at the subsidiary. I did not need to be a subject matter expert in all of the areas of the company. My role was to help set the strategic vision of where we were trying to go, hire good people to lead each of the departments, and for me to focus on clearing paths for those leaders so they could meet their strategic objectives.
This allowed me to stretch my own capabilities and develop a good understanding of what people needed from a leader.
What’s your No. 1 piece of advice for women who are looking for jobs right now?
There are no bad jobs. When I was young in my career I had my entire path mapped out, but what I found out is you never know when an opportunity will present itself… but you need to be open to change. Don’t be afraid to take a job just because you are not a subject matter expert in the area. Take the job that will stretch you and allow you to grow.
Who is/was the most influential person in your life and why?
My dad, hands down. My dad was a grade school PE teacher. He was beloved by his students. He made such a difference in their lives. Still to this day, now as grown men and woman, they reach out to my dad to tell him about the birth of a child or a marriage. My Dad taught me to remember that no matter what career path I chose, people are the most important part of the equation.We have the opportunity to have a positive impact on a person’s life every day.
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
A previous boss told me, “you own your own career.” Your company will offer a career path and your boss will have an opinion on what you should do next, but you own taking charge and making it happen.
About seven years into my career at UP I had the opportunity to put this advice into action. I had just gone out on maternity leave with my first child, and while I was on leave, my boss called to tell me I was receiving a promotion and would be moving off my field sales position into a marketing job in the headquarters building. At that point in my life I was facing the need for a bit more flexibility with a new baby. I researched open jobs in the department and found a lower level position that was posted in my current work group. I put together a proposal to take a demotion and work two days a week from home.
My boss at the time was a young woman who was already a senior director. She approved my request, and for 18 months I worked two days a week from home.
I then, with a colleague, put a proposal together for the company’s first job share. We received approval for a three-year contract to be reviewed each year and renewed if it was going well.
Our pilot program was successful, and after three years I returned to work full time. The company went on to offer job share as a company option moving forward.
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