From his policy work on Capitol Hill to navigating Y2K and 9/11 with government agencies, Thomas Zoeller understands what it means to be an adviser to decision-makers when the stakes are high. For the general counsel of markets and regulation at Norfolk Southern Corporation, the key is to be the “alter ego” of whomever he’s representing—a passionate advocate for his client.
“It’s important that individuals you’re working with understand that you are a team player and have a shared commitment to the goal, whether it’s for the agency, the client, or the company,” Zoeller says. “We all have different roles to play and my role as a lawyer and senior policy person has been to ask challenging and probing questions—not to suggest I’m smarter than anyone, but to offer a different perspective and make sure we’ve collectively thought through all the pluses and minuses of a particular action.”
That wisdom is rooted in one of Zoeller’s first career experiences. After getting his law degree from Seton Hall University, the young attorney began his career in the Federal Election Commission. His time at the regulatory agency furthered his interest in merging his legal know-how with government, leading him to the office of Senator Wendell Ford, where he served as a legislative assistant and counsel.
He spent his days working closely with Ford as they sat next to each other on the Senate floor during quorum calls, talking about the history of the chamber and the various legislation being considered.
“That relationship fundamentally helped me in all my future jobs, especially in Washington, DC,” Zoeller reflects. “You’re always working for someone in authority and a lot of times you have to be the alter ego for that individual. You have to be able to think like them, act like them, and speak like them.”
He continues, “I couldn’t impersonate Ford, but I could get a flavor for how he would communicate. So, when I would write things for him or talk to other people, I would try to bring his persona into that conversation and into that work.”
In addition to being a trusted advisor as well as learning how to be succinct and precise during briefings, Zoeller got a crash course in humility.
“Sometimes leaders agree to something that you advised against, but it’s not my decision to make. My job is to support them,” he says. “If I’ve I told them to go A and they went B, now I’m going to do whatever I can to make B successful. As an advisor, you need to be humble in part because you’re working with larger entities and the larger enterprise is more important than you are.”
After seven years of advising the senator on transportation, federal government, and telecommunication matters, Zoeller went on to work for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with Jane Garvey where his early work in that role centered around Y2K. As the year 2000 approached, there were concerns over how computers and integrated systems would react to the date change.
In the aviation space, some wondered whether the change would wreak havoc among air traffic control systems, prompting Zoeller and his colleagues to ensure the system would transition smoothly. He accompanied Garvey to multiple hearings and ultimately became chief of staff.
After successfully navigating Y2K, the FAA and Zoeller had bigger challenges ahead. It would shut down the aviation system completely a year later, amid the 9/11 attacks. Then, it would be tasked with reopening the system with a new security paradigm.
“That had never been done in the history of modern aviation in the United States,” he recalls. “I don’t think you can really describe the level of stress, risk, concern, and number of stakeholders involved in that decision-making from the president on down. It was one of the most intense periods of time.”
Despite how difficult it was to navigate, the experience taught him how to respond during a crisis and prepared him for another high-stakes role at the National Transportation Safety Board, where he helped leaders respond to various accidents. “You have to be calm, deliberate, and measured in how you respond,” Zoeller explains. “I always remind people that you can’t always control circumstances, but you can control how you react.”
Today, he leverages those experiences at Norfolk Southern, where he and four other attorneys provide legal, political, policy, and business support to the company’s operations and customers. As GC, he’s an accessible leader who believes that the best decisions come when diverse viewpoints collaborate.
Recently, Zoeller’s focus has been on preparing the next generation of leaders in the company through leadership development training. He advises young attorneys to be patient in order to succeed.
“This generation has a sense of urgency to make it quickly to the next level,” Zoeller observes. “But getting experience prepares you for the next level you want to move to. The higher you move up in an organization, your ability to rely on your experience becomes more important for you to see the bigger picture.”
“Regardless the storm, Tom always seems to be a calm voice of reason. He’s a true asset to Norfolk Southern Corporation. And our firm really enjoys enjoy working with him.”
—Casey Talbott, Member