June 22, 2009
Doug Eadie on Leadership—The Empowering CEO: Talking with David Boggs
BY DOUG EADIE
The chief executive officer as Heroic Leader is a pretty attractive figure to most of us, and most of us probably think of the U.S. presidency in these terms. Guided by a clear vision for the future that he or she aspires to create and blessed with the communication skills required to paint a vivid picture of that vision for others, the Heroic Leader inspires optimism, enthusiasm, and commitment.
The Heroic Leader energizes people, and that’s an obviously critical facet of CEO-ship, especially in troubled times that test our mettle and invite self-defeating pessimism.
But the Heroic Leader model, while inspiring and even essential in times of crisis, is really quite limited and doesn’t begin to capture the full value that CEOs bring to their organizations. The fact is, the overwhelming majority of the time our public transportation systems aren’t contending with the extraordinary crises that demand heroic leadership. Rather, day after day after day they function in a changing, challenging world that demands a different kind of CEO, what I call the Empowering Leader.
The Empowering Leader is passionately committed to growing the people around him or her: building their capacity to lead and manage, helping them learn to grapple with the day-to-day issues that determine organizational effectiveness.
One of the most impressive Empowering Leaders I’ve met over the past quarter-century is David Boggs, who has been executive director and CEO of the Regional Public Transportation Authority (popularly known as Valley Metro) in the Phoenix metropolitan area since April 2005. Despite his 40 years of incredibly diverse executive experience—including 14 years in the for-profit sector, 30 years in transportation, seven years as a chief financial officer, and 17 years as a CEO—David is a thoroughly modern leader who has blazed trails in empowering the people around him.
I recently spent a fascinating couple of hours talking with this Empowering Leader about his approaches to human capacity building at Valley Metro.
Doug: David, the term “empowerment” seems like a buzzword to many people. Talk about what it means to you as a CEO.
David: Well, Doug, to me it’s much, much more than just a political slogan: it’s almost the definition of the mission of the modern CEO. I learned really early in my life—working in Dad’s department store, becoming an Eagle Scout—that being a one-man band won’t get you very far, and as I worked my way up in the field of management, from operations analyst to CFO and eventually CEO, two things became crystal-clear: first, organizations are above all else the people making them up; second, helping those people become better at doing their jobs is the pre-eminent route to organizational success. Sure, you’ve got to have planning, you need operating systems, facilities, equipment—those things are indispensable—but people top the list in my book, and always have.
Now, I have heard “empowerment” used as a political slogan, but when I think of empowering people, I think of three very practical things I regularly do as a CEO to help them become more effective members of the Valley Metro team: ensure that there is a strategic framework that their work fits into and that they understand; show them that I really do care about them as human beings; and put in place effective education and training programs aimed at updating and sharpening their leadership and management skills.
Doug: Give me some practical examples of your work as an Empowering Leader at Valley Metro.
David: On the strategic front, we’ve invested heavily in long-range planning at Valley Metro, and with the enthusiastic support and participation of my Board of Directors, which represents the 15 governmental entities making up Valley Metro, we have developed a 20-year blueprint to guide development of our regional transportation system, and we make sure that our employees understand where they fit in the grand scheme of things—where this whole shebang is headed over the long run.
At a more nuts and bolts level, and at the more “touchy-feely” end of the spectrum, I make a point of being a very visible, highly accessible CEO internally, and my people really do know that I’m genuinely interested in them. I use a lot of humor to keep the culture fun, even though we work very hard. And my office door really is open to anyone who needs to see me, for any reason.
I also make it a point to get out of headquarters as much as possible to visit the people on the front lines who keep the system running. When my wife and I are in town on Thanksgiving and Christmas, for example, I make on-site visits to the people who are working, not celebrating, so they know we really do care about the personal sacrifice they’re making.
Doug: What about education and training, David?
David: Experience has taught me that education and empowerment go hand-in-hand, Doug, and I take my role as Educator-in-Chief at Valley Metro very seriously. Drawing on my 40 years of leading and managing, I was inspired to develop a detailed course—people at Valley Metro call it the “Boggs Method”—on executive leadership and management that I actually teach periodically. We get into things like the key elements of leadership and management, how to communicate effectively, time management, and handling the emotional/psychological dimension of management.
I want to point out that informal teaching is just as important as what we do in the classroom, and as Educator-in-Chief at Valley Metro one of my most important roles is to set high expectations for my people, to give them the opportunity to grow, and to help them learn through experience.
You know, Doug, when I arrived on the scene at Valley Metro, I found an organization without much credibility and a staff that wasn’t very respected in the region. I’m not an aficionado of the slash and burn school of leadership, so I spent my first few months on the job listening and learning, rather than “cleaning house,” and it was soon clear to me that we were blessed with good people who hadn’t been allowed to excel. Well, we soon faced a trial by fire that turned out to be a phenomenal growth experience for my team, the great majority of whom are still in place today, by the way. To make a long story short, we were forced to convert to a new contractor, and the political and technical complexities involved made this a true crisis. Working day and night, we pulled it off, and in the process we got a huge jolt of self-esteem. This is empowerment in the purest sense!
Doug: You’ve talked about empowering staff, David, but what about your Board of Directors?
David: I’m really fortunate to have 15 board members who are extremely supportive and solidly committed to the cause of regional development generally and to Valley Metro. But Empowering Leaders, in my opinion, are responsible for helping their boards become more effective governing bodies.
One way this plays out in practice is providing the board with top-notch, empowered staff who make it possible for board members to deal effectively with complex, high-stakes issues. I also spend a significant amount of time with our board members, visiting them individually and attending events on their home turf. The bottom line is to “over” communicate at all levels, and to stay focused on what is truly relevant, without losing sight of the future!
Doug Eadie is president & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company. You can reach Doug here.