March 2, 2009
A Conversation with HART's David Armijo: Part 2 of 2
By DOUG EADIE
In my last column, I shared points that David Armijo, chief executive officer of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) in Tampa, FL, made over the course of our recent half-day meeting, touching on strategic issues facing HART and critical CEO attributes and skills. This column continues the dialogue.
Doug: David, you mentioned stakeholder relations as one of your top CEO priorities. Would you expand on this facet of your work?
David: I’d be happy to, Doug; there’s no area of my work that is closer to my heart.
First, let’s talk about who these stakeholders are. They’re groups of people, organizations, and sometimes even individuals that it makes good sense to develop and manage a relationship with because of the stakes involved, including such things as political support, money, and collaboration.
The public at large in Tampa Bay, including all residents, not just our riders, are HART’s – and my – pre-eminent stakeholders. So I spend a lot of my time out in the community, speaking to civic groups and meeting with the media, making sure that our vision and strategies for the future and the good work we’re doing here in Tampa Bay are widely understood and appreciated. Of course, I share this diplomatic role with the HART board, but that doesn’t mean that I can expect my board members, who are, after all, unpaid volunteers with many other demands, to match my effort as HART’s ambassador-in-chief.
Internally, the board of directors is one of my highest-priority stakeholders, of course, and I’ve also got to be very visible to, and communicate effectively with, staff – and with the union as well, which I really do view as part of the HART team. Naturally, we have our differences now and then, but I refuse to treat the union as an adversary.
I take my internal diplomatic role very seriously. For example, I make a point of participating in frequent staff roundtables at our various locations, and the $30 gift card we gave to all employees last Christmas, while it wasn’t a huge bonus by any means, was really appreciated.
As far as specific external stakeholders are concerned, we’ve significantly upgraded our working relationship with the state of Florida by establishing a full-time legislative relations function, and we’ve cemented an especially close working relationship with the mayor of Tampa, Pam Iorio, who is an outspoken, and very influential, proponent of HART’s establishing light rail service. Pam hasn’t agreed with us on every issue, naturally; for example, she’s expressed strong reservations about Bus Rapid Transit development, seeing it as drawing attention away from light rail. But her strong, consistent advocacy for public transportation in Tampa Bay makes her a highly valued partner, and we pay really close attention to keeping our working relationship with Pam close, positive, and productive.
Doug: Tell me about your relationship with the HART Board of Directors, starting with what you consider the board’s greatest strengths as HART’s governing body.
David: My board has been consistently encouraging and supportive during my first 18 months as HART’s CEO, and I’ve been able to use the group as a powerful sounding board for testing ideas and possible initiatives. I’d say that, as a governing body, my board deserves kudos for its strategic decision-making, especially framing a vision for the future.
You should know, Doug, that I treat my board as a precious asset and critical partner in leading HART. I’ve made sure that the board plays a creative, proactive role in making strategic decisions through our upgraded agency planning process, and I’m currently working with the board chair to launch a systematic board development initiative, involving our holding a full-fledged strategic planning retreat, updating the board’s governing role and functions, and modernizing the board’s committee structure.
I’ve also taken a number of steps to improve communication with the board. For example, I meet regularly with individual board members and have instituted a weekly email update and a news blast to ensure that they’re never caught off guard by developments.
Doug: What do you find most satisfying in your CEO role, and, flipping the coin over, what do you find least satisfying?
David: I absolutely love the decision-making dimension of being HART’s CEO. I relish the opportunity to play a leading role, with my board, in making the kind of high-impact strategic and operational decisions that make a significant difference in the community. I wake up every morning keenly aware that we at HART are in a position to play a key role in helping Tampa Bay realize its tremendous promise as a metropolitan superstar of the future.
I’m a positive thinker, so I don’t like to focus on the downside. However, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I don’t find very enjoyable or satisfying having to deal with employees whose performance is sub-par. This just comes with the CEO turf, and I’d be doing HART a disservice if I failed to address underperforming employees, so I don’t waffle in dealing with underperformers. But like that part of my CEO role? No way.
Doug: Well, David, knowing that you prefer focusing on the positive, I’ll risk asking you this final question: What mistake have you made since becoming CEO of HART that has taught you a valuable lesson?
David: Actually, Doug, I consider mistakes a valuable part of growing, just so long as you act on the lessons they teach. One of mine that comes to mind has to do with our streetcar line. Shortly after arriving on the scene at HART, I learned that the line was in such bad shape financially that immediate action was needed to avert a fiscal catastrophe. I was right about the issue, but I got ahead of the streetcar board in attempting to resolve the problem. Everything turned out OK, but I found myself having to backtrack in building understanding and support. The lesson I learned? Communicate, communicate, communicate; involve, involve, involve! You can’t go it alone as a CEO, not for long, anyway.
Doug Eadie is president & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company.