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Leadership Lessons from a Republican Governor in a Blue State

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

When a politician is running for public office, it’s common to hear them tout their experience in the private sector, especially if they’ve been a corporate executive. Being a mayor of a city or a governor of a province, they say, is basically being the CEO of a workforce with X number of employees and in charge of a budget of Y number of dollars.

The message is that government should run more like a business, or at least at the speed of business, that public sector lifers should have the same effectiveness of a private sector employee. But today’s guests say that argument is grossly simplified and exaggerated, that, in many ways, public sector leadership is severely more difficult than being the CEO of a company, and, at the same time, turning around a company can serve as a great practice run for solving problems in government. They say that because they’ve done both.

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Joining me now is Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, along with his First Chief of Staff Steve Kadish, who’s now a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. Together, they wrote a playbook for governmental leaders and public sector executives. It’s called Results: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done.

CURT NICKISCH: Governor Baker, thanks so much for coming on the show.

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: Thank you, Curt. We’re glad to be here.

CURT NICKISCH: And Steve, thank you.

STEVE KADISH: A real pleasure. Thank you, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: You two have worked together for many years. Before you were governor, Governor Baker, you had been the CEO of a medical insurer Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare. And Steve was on your team, a Senior Vice President for Administration and Project Management.

So going back and forth between public service and private sector work, what’s the biggest misconception that people in the private sector have about public sector leadership, being a government executive?

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: I think part of it has to do with the incredibly public nature of it. Having done both, so first of all, it’s just every decision you make in the public sector for the most part gets scrutinized. And there are tons and tons of interested parties. There are advocates, there are research organizations, there are media outlets, there are legislators. There are just a lot of eyes on everything you do in government, far more than there are when you’re working in the private sector. So that would be point number one.

I think the second one would be that, in government, we really never stop debating strategy or direction or even tactics or organizational structure, whereas in the private sector, organizations figure out where they want to go, they figure out what the structure they want to actually proceed and perform on their goals and objectives is, and then they go. And if you don’t want to be part of that organization at that point in time, you can leave. In government, for the most part, it’s a constant debate and discussion among a lot of points of view about what we should be focusing on and how we should be doing things. And that is really different than the way things work in the private sector.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, that’s so interesting, because we think about how hard being a CEO is and how they are in the spotlight. And it seems like that’s nothing in comparison to being a governmental leader. Steve, what do you have to add to that?

STEVE KADISH: I’m going to follow on the governor’s point about choosing. In government, you cannot choose the issues or the topics you want to work on. You can to some degree, and that’s actually a very powerful opportunity when you can do that. But you have to address the things that are coming at you, and you have to address a broad spectrum of things, where in the private sector, you can choose the product, the audience, the timing, the level of quality, and so forth.

The other really distinguishing feature is that decision making is dispersed. For example, the budget that you have for an initiative, for a program at the end of the day is defined by the legislature. In the case of Massachusetts, a body of 200 individuals that vote to decide what the size of that budget would be. We, at the very beginning of the governor’s administration, we had some terrible snowstorms and we were looking for how to most effectively procure to purchase a whole variety of things in our transportation system. We needed to have a law passed to change the procurement system.

Most recently, with COVID, the governor launched an effort around preventing housing evictions, and at the end of the day, the interpretation of notice and eviction, we needed the courts to weigh in a way that gave us more time to proceed.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s a lot harder than just going to the board for a key, expenditure, or strategy change.

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: You’re also focused in the private sector on your stakeholders, your customers, your employees, and the context of the market you’re in. And that creates urgency and focus. Don’t get me wrong. The biggest difference between the public sector and the private sector is, in the private sector, if you’re not very good at what you do, you will lose your customers and eventually, most likely, lose your organization. And there is a sense of urgency there that’s just undeniable. But in the public sector, the audience and the interested parties and the folks who have, as Steve put it, real decision making authority with respect to what you do and how you do it, it really is a very big community. And that big community, most of the time, doesn’t always agree with itself either.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. That point you made in the book and that you’ve just pointed to there, no competitor steps in if you fail and go out of business in government. Failure, you wrote, is not an option.

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: In the public space, a lot of what you’re up to and a lot of what you work on are things that must be done. The debate about how to do them, what’s considered to be successful, what’s considered not to be successful, that happens every day. But you can’t stop doing them. They’re statutory. They’re required. They’re fundamental.

CURT NICKISCH: So I’d like to go through the results framework that you both use when you think about solving big problems and that you outline really, really clearly and effectively in the book. The four parts of this are people are policy, follow the facts, focus on how, and push for results. And I’d like to go through each of those and maybe start with people are policy.

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Governor, Steve may be a good example of this, because he was somebody that you chose as your First Chief of Staff when you were first elected in 2014, and a lot of incoming governors or new governors choose their campaign manager for that role, because they’ve run a campaign, they’ve run an operation, and they’re very tuned in politically. You chose somebody that you worked in administratively and in the private sector as well for many years. Can you talk about that maybe to help launch this people are policy focus here?

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: Well, it is true that most people, when they get elected, choose their campaign manager or somebody who is close to the campaign, because they think about that job as an issues management job. But from my point of view, state government’s a big operation. It’s executive branches, 44,000 employees, 250 agencies, $40 billion operating budget. There’s just a lot to do there. And I really wanted the person who was in the office next to me to be thought of as the chief operating officer of the Commonwealth, not as the chief issues management person of the Commonwealth.

STEVE KADISH: It goes back to an earlier part of the conversation. I think one of the lessons from the private sector that we keep bringing back to the public sector is this idea of a chief operating officer. In the private sector, it is an indisputable role. It’s a key role in the C-suite.

In the public sector, you have your general counsel, your policy leads, your budget leads, your program leads, but you do not always have a person who has the responsibilities of a chief operating officer. And that is one of the things that we wanted to bring from the private sector, that discipline of how. And I know you’ll get there in a second in the framework.

We always start with people, people our policy, it’s a phrase the governor actually first started using way back at Harvard Pilgrim. For us in the framework, it’s the structural umbrella for everything else. Simply said, you cannot do things without people. We have a hyper focus on people at the beginning of any initiative, both the leaders and the full team.

COVID was a prime example of that. One of the first actions that the governor took was to name a lead of a dedicated team, the COVID Command Center, and then insist that that person, Secretary Sudders, Marylou Sudders fill out that team really robustly. That idea of a lead and filling out a team is a basic to the results framework.

CURT NICKISCH: You wrote in the book that the best ideas are abstractions until people act. Governor, you said that you were looking for no jerks, but you were not afraid of strong personalities and you’re looking for 50% players. Can you talk about what you’re looking for in people?

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: Well, the most important thing about the people piece is tied up in collaborative spirit. I’m a big believer that if finance does really well, but marketing and sales and the rest of the organization doesn’t, you won’t be very successful for very long. And the same is true in government. Everybody needs to understand that we are all in the same ship and the ship will sink if all of us don’t succeed.

There’s this tendency, especially in the public sector for people to think about their own world and to forget about the rest. And focus is good. But one of my dad’s favorite sayings when I was a kid was, “You need to understand, son, that people usually get fired by their peers and their subordinates long before they get fired by their bosses.” I always thought that was a pretty interesting phrase to love live by, when it came to thinking about organizational structure.

The one other thing I would say, to add to Steve’s comments about finding the right people, it’s also about building the right team. If somebody’s really good at one aspect of work, let’s say somebody’s a really terrific communicator, but they’re not all that organizationally great. Then you find somebody to work with them who is organizationally great. If somebody’s not a great communicator, but they’re really terrific at thinking about all the follow through and execution issues, then that person needs somebody to help them sell what it is they’re doing.

I think one of the things we tend to do sometimes in management is we think everybody’s a five tool player. And some people are, but in many cases, what you really need to do is create the five tools amongst those who are part of the team, and to then help them accentuate the part of the package that they’re most ably capable of performing.

CURT NICKISCH: So let’s move on to the next point in the framework, which is follow the facts. Talk us through going into a situation where there’s a big problem, whether it’s a snowstorm that’s knocked out transportation, or suddenly there’s a pandemic on the horizon, or even a small thing in a community, when you first encounter a problem, explain the follow the facts mentality.

STEVE KADISH: The idea of follow the facts hopefully is natural to people who are managers and leaders. It’s to really understand what’s going on. There are two parts for us. One is the data evidence is what we call it. And that is probably the more obvious of the kinds of facts that we look at. It’s the size of the problem, the money involved, the people, the trends, the context, if there’s a triggering event and so forth.

The piece that we’ve added and we added intentionally and deliberately at the beginning of the Baker-Polito administration was really an intention about points of pain. This came from our experience at Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare. And the idea was to really focus not at the numbers and the policy, but the impact on the individuals, the communities, the families, the businesses.

And it’s a gathering of stories through interviews, through anecdote, but it’s to define the problem in real terms. And together, the data evidence and the points of pain provide these points of navigation for the problem solving. Charlie, the governor does this when he wakes up. It was one of the first things that struck me about him when I met him 30 years ago, is his intensity about asking for the details of things. That’s the data evidence piece.

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STEVE KADISH: And over the years, we really grew to understand that. That’s a critical piece of it, but what is the on the ground impact with people? So no matter what the issue is, it’s really those two pieces.

CURT NICKISCH: I loved how in this section of the book, you talked about distrusting averages, we’re really trying to look at extremes and individual experiences to get a sense of it. When you encounter a problem, or you go into a room where important people are gathered, how do you get to the facts? What are you trying to get to?

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: Well, let me just start with this averages thing, because it’s a great mask that hides lots of things, and people use it all the time, averages and medians. Let’s take caseloads for social workers. If the average caseload for social workers is supposed to be, call it, 18 cases per social worker, you’re assuming when you build that average, that the whole thing is a completely normal distribution. Well, what happens if you have a whole ton of social workers who are new, who have five or six cases, and are working their way into the system, and on the other end, you have a whole bunch of social workers who are carrying 21, 24, 25, 26 cases? Both of those facts are completely masked by an average. And this is exactly what we found when we got there.

And so one of the things we did was we started working on all of the individual social workers who had cases that were above 20, and said, “We’re going to focus here first, because this is where the single biggest opportunity for trouble is going to come from.” And then, within that, as we worked our way down that, we also figured out and discovered that you needed some sort of a severity index to measure as well. How many of those cases involve kids who had serious conditions, and issues, and challenges, and how many of them were less so? How many of them were relatively new? How many of them had been with the system for a few years? I mean, there’s … Averages serve a purpose, but you really got to get under them, in some cases, to figure out what’s truly happening, and what the answer or the approach to dealing with the problem you’re trying to solve is going to look like.

CURT NICKISCH: You, too, also write about getting out of the tower, which sounds a little bit like leadership by walking around, but on a much more serious basis.

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: The broadband issue is a good example of getting out of the tower. We had this terrible problem with broadband in Western Mass, 55 communities that didn’t have it. And the effort on this had been going on for almost 10 years. It was just stalled. And when we started talking to the communities, we realized that part of the reason it was stalled was we were trying to … The state was trying to basically sell a single solution to 55 different kinds of communities. And it just … You couldn’t make it work. So what we did was put together a menu that had … It was like six or seven different choices. You had to pick one, but we gave people options, and we built the optionality around what we learned when we talked to the 55 communities about what their issues and concerns were with respect to getting from where we were to actually having broadband installed.

And once we created the menu, people just started picking stuff off the menu. And then, we went into execution mode. But if we hadn’t talked to the communities, and really listened to what they were saying, we would’ve just continued to buy this argument that we were getting from people, which was people just … They just don’t want to play. No, they all wanted to play. They just couldn’t play on the one option that was being made available to them.

CURT NICKISCH: Once you’ve gotten to the nub of the issue, then, Steve, can you talk about the focus on how?

STEVE KADISH: So the focus on how is the element of the results framework that I think is most distinctive. And there are two parts to this, the, “What to do.” We think about it as the charter, so to speak. It’s, “What is the policy? What is the program? What is the technology change? What is the service component you’re trying to deliver?” And then, the second piece is that, “Well, how do you do it?” And that is the approach to organizing the work, to actually deliver the service, to deliver the change, to accomplish the goal.

CURT NICKISCH: Is this where most, I don’t know, governmental initiatives often fail? Is this the biggest stumbling block?

STEVE KADISH: It’s probably where, I would say, both public and private sector initiatives fail. Although in the public sector, it’s front page news when a budget is passed. It’s front page news when a law is passed. There hasn’t been enough attention on the how. And we wanted to bring the focus on how to the same level of importance as policy and budgeting is in the public sector.

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: I mean, I would say that Steve’s last point about how, is exactly right. Because in the end how the performance of government actually translates in real time to people tells people a lot more about what to think about government than almost anything else. And there’s a quote in the book. I think it’s in the epilogue, that points out that there have been studies done that show that liberals and conservatives, when they actually draw conclusions about the capability of government, generally tend not to look at it through ideological lenses. They look at it through non ideological lenses, and practical ones, based on what they actually see.

And if government’s in a place where we have soaring rhetoric, and over the top promises, and commitments, and aspirations, and we constantly fail to live up to any of that, it just erodes people’s faith in anything people in government say. There isn’t a lot in the literature about this piece of public sector work. There’s a lot on the literature about policy making, and what we call the what and why. But there just isn’t very much about, “Well, how do you actually do the what and why,” so that people feel like you actually gave them what you said you were going to give them, thereby helping restore their faith in government’s ability to actually live up to its commitments? And that is really, from my point of view, the main reason we did this.

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CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, I realized we’ve gotten this far in the interview without even saying your political parties. Gov. Baker you’re a Republican, Steve, you’re a Democrat. And the fourth point in your framework is, “Push for results,” right? Can you take us through that last point in the framework, “Push for results?”

STEVE KADISH: It’s the push for results, where we use metrics to measure performance, and the opportunity to use metrics. They’re honest. They’re objective. They’re not political. And it allows discussions to happen, where you can bring perspective, but they are what they are. And they get better. They get worse. They stay the same. You can see the impact of what you’re trying to do through the measure of performance, the push for results. And so, we measure push for results. We then evaluate, and discuss what those metrics are. And then, I think a very, very big thing, which is really hard to do in the public sector is that we make adjustments. In other words, we might say, “What we tried to do didn’t work, and now we’re going to make an adjustment,” or, “What we tried to do worked really well, and we want to accelerate that.” So this mantra, and the push for results of measure, evaluate, adjust, and repeat is how we continually build improvement to services.

And with COVID and the vaccines, The Boston Globe did a report card on Massachusetts and a few other states. At the beginning of this report card, I think Massachusetts had a D or something like that on vaccine delivery. After this approach, this continually measuring, discussing, adjust, adjust, adjust, that Massachusetts became, in a relatively short time, a leader in getting vaccines into people’s arms.

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: Steve said we were a leader. We became the leader, and we’ve been the leader nationally in vaccinating our population for almost a year now. Not that I pay attention to that sort of thing.

I’m going to go back to Harvard Pilgrim. When Steve and I went to Harvard Pilgrim, they had a project management operation where basically when they didn’t meet deadlines, they just moved them. And so, no project was ever yellow or red. They were all green, but nothing was getting finished. We needed that rigor and that discipline and that honesty about projects to actually fix what was wrong at the company.

I still remember the first time Steve presented at the weekly leadership meeting, his first update on where we were on projects and the entire thing was red, and people were horrified. Steve said, “No, this is good. We are being honest about where we are on these things so that we can figure out what’s wrong and fix it.”

Literally, light bulbs went off all over people’s heads as they got the concept that if you don’t accept and acknowledge, that you set a deadline and you blew it, that doesn’t mean you move the deadline. That means you’ve got a problem and you need to fix it.

This is a great example, by the way, of where the difference between the public and private sector is just laid bare, because in the private sector, you can have a dashboard that’s completely red, and it’s a signal to everybody that they need to change and they need to get better and they need to figure it out and make it happen and happen quickly. There aren’t 10 stories on the news, on social media, in the newspapers about the fact that the dashboard is red and everybody is underperforming.

Whereas in the public sector, when you have a whole bunch of things that aren’t going the way they’re supposed to go, it’s not unusual to have to justify and explain where you are and why you’re there over and over again in the public domain.

Then you make the adjustments and you figure it out and you fix it. No one ever writes the story about that. So all the public ever knows about or remembers is the fact that you blew it when you took your first pass on whatever it was that ended up on the news.

In the private sector that, most of the time, doesn’t happen. I do think it’s hard sometimes, unless you played in both places, to appreciate just how much transparency there is into the workings of government versus the workings of an organization.

It’s healthy, it’s important, and it’s the public purse. So I get it, but it does make it harder, I think, sometimes for the public sector and the people who work in it to celebrate their successes, of which there are many. That’s, again, part of the reason we wrote the book was to say that there are successes. There are things that do work. There are definitely challenges, and I’m constantly humbled every day by this job.

But I think what we really want coming out of this is a whole bunch of people who care about the public sphere to believe that this toolbox can help them deliver for the people they serve.

CURT NICKISCH: Governor Baker, Steve, thank you so much for sharing your experience for other people to learn from.

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER: Thank you, Curt. Really appreciate it.

STEVE KADISH: Thank you, Curt.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, and Steve Kadish, a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. Together, they wrote the book Results: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done.

If you got something from today’s episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage yourself, manage others, and manage organizations. Find them at hbr.org/podcast or search HBR in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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