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Union Pacific emerging leaders

More than Conductors, Union Pacific Seeks Curious MBAs with a Passion for Lifelong Learning

When Jeff Sebree began his career at Union Pacific nearly 21 years ago, he was excited just be able to use his finance background, not to mention his MBA education. It was a great opportunity — and one in which he would get to do some traveling. He quickly realized, though, that it was so much more than that.

In more than two decades, Sebree has served in several positions in the finance department, from there moving into an HR role, “and now I find myself leading the talent acquisition team,” he says. “I had the opportunity to go and do something completely different, and it challenged me and stretched my development.”

Giving employees room to learn, challenge themselves and grow is something that Sebree, who is general director of talent acquisition, believes Union Pacific does well. By providing opportunities to experience different areas of the business, the company fosters an environment of curiosity and constant learning.

Jeff Sebree
Jeff Sebree

As a Fortune 150 company with 35,000 employees across 23 western states, Union Pacific Railroad is much more than its name implies. One of the benefits of being such a large company, Sebree notes, is the opportunities that come with that.

“I think some people see ‘railroad’ and think ‘I don’t want to be operating trains’ — but it’s so much more than that,” he says. “That’s an extremely important aspect, but when you think about the type of work that we get involved with, it is always different, always challenging, and that, to me, is a huge piece of what’s exciting about being an employee of Union Pacific, because you’re never bored.”

With its hands in nearly every aspect of the U.S. economy, Union Pacific offers employees the opportunity to explore different industries and to think critically to help customers.

“We really do haul the lifeblood of the economy,” says Sebree. “So, when you come into a department like marketing and sales, you’re going to have the opportunity to not only learn about the railroad, which is an extremely unique industry in that there are only a handful of major railroads like us here in North America, but you also get to learn about your customers.”

Customers’ businesses run the gamut of industries, from construction to agriculture to even rocks. “That’s something I didn’t fully appreciate when I came into the company, is just how many different businesses we touch through our customers,” Sebree notes.

MBA graduates entering marketing and sales, for example, work with customers to find the best transportation solution for their business. “Obviously that’s going to include some portion of rail, maybe exclusively rail, but we also have marketing and sales folks who try to help customers find full logistic solutions,” says Sebree. “So if they have to have some trucking as part of the process to haul their goods, we help with that as well.”

Like those entering marketing and sales, individuals entering the finance department are given a lot of responsibility. “As a company, we spend roughly $3 billion a year on capital expenditures. That’s a lot of money, so we have to make sure that we’re spending it in the best way to get a return on that investment,” Sebree explains. “So one of the roles that you could go into is in financial planning and analysis. You might be in charge of supporting a particular department, say the engineering department or our capacity planning group where you’re helping build, with a team, the financial models and an understanding of the aspects of a particular project and making sure that it makes sense for the railroad to invest in.”

Having been an MBA student himself, Sebree believes these individuals bring deeper knowledge and a broader perspective to their roles. In addition to critical thinking skills, business acumen and — as is the case with most Consortium members — some work experience, MBAs bring with them an understanding of the breadth of what it takes to make a company successful.

“You have that perspective that it’s not just my department, it’s not just my team. It’s everybody working together to really push toward the company’s goals,” Sebree says. “It’s having that full perspective of how everything connects and knowing that you don’t work in a vacuum.”

This knowledge, he says, is largely due to students being exposed to a range of experiences through their MBA program. Such diverse experiences, like those provided at Union Pacific, help not only build a team-oriented company culture but also improve individual employees’ abilities. You begin to understand what others are going through, what their role is and “how their work fits into the bigger mosaic of who we are as a company,” says Sebree.

Union Pacific Leadership Development class
Union Pacific’s 2020 Leadership Development Class

“You develop some understanding, some empathy, and that can help you in your own work,” he adds.

Professional development is also a significant focus at Union Pacific. With a large training group, the company offers a plethora of both instructor-led and online courses for employees — whether they’re looking to improve technical or soft skills (i.e., leadership, team building, how to have tough conversations). On top of that, two formal programs, Emerging Leaders and the Leadership Development Program, provide an opportunity for employees to both demonstrate and enhance their skills.

Through Emerging Leaders, which is designed for high-performing employees with no direct reports, individuals are nominated and gain the opportunity to develop further as leaders. “It gives you an opportunity to demonstrate your leadership skills and [further] develop those — and really helps you advance your career,” says Sebree.

The Leadership Development Program, which is designed for high-performing employees with an existing team, also involves a nomination process; those who are selected participate in a yearlong program in which they learn what it means to be a leader. “That has a lot of different facets,” says Sebree. “[At the end,] you’ll have a project that you get to pitch to the senior leadership of the company.”

Such experiences benefit both the employees and Union Pacific, Sebree notes, as people become more curious, which leads to more innovative ideas and builds stronger engagement among teams.

“This company wouldn’t be anywhere if it [weren’t for its] people,” he says. “You have to have good people who are pulling in the same direction, and in order to do that, you have to make sure that you’re developing your team.”

Part of developing that team is building it, and Union Pacific is focused on building the best, most diverse team. “We want to make sure that we have the best possible talent that we can here at Union Pacific so that we can compete,” says Sebree. “We recognize that having a diverse workforce is a key to making that success happen. As we’re out recruiting and telling our story, we want to make sure that we’re building the strongest and most talented workforce for the future.”

Because the nature of Union Pacific’s work is more business-to-business, however, the company has recognized the need for some assistance in reaching and telling its story to prospective employees.

Last year, Union Pacific began partnering with The Consortium to help share its story as well as support The Consortium’s mission. Sebree says he has been impressed with both the caliber of the students and the support from the organization, and he has high hopes going forward as Union Pacific works to attract what he says are “top-notch” students. “We have a great story that, once told, I think people are drawn to. We have a lot to offer in the roles that we have” he says.

For his part, Sebree has found fulfillment in the many roles he’s had the pleasure of serving in at Union Pacific — and in knowing that he’s helping build the diverse and talented workforce that will carry the company into the future. “Having the opportunity to make an impact and advance things further,” he says, “to know that I’m leaving my little piece of the world a little bit better, is pretty cool.”

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