Archive, Editorial

Small Steps to Big Goals


When I learned I had been selected by GOVERNING Magazine as one of their 2014 Public Officials of the Year, I was pleased beyond words for the reasons most would guess, and one most would not.  The reaction that is expected, although not any less special, is to feel humble and grateful that I am receiving recognition for work that has taken great effort by the superb team at DC Water.  Our world-class public servants make me look good every day.

The reaction that is personal to me is that receiving this award represents the achievement of a goal I set almost 20 years ago.  In 1996 I was a member of Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review – charged with building a government that works better and costs less.  Just a few years before, GOVERNING – a regular partner of the Performance Review – had started selecting their Public Officials of the Year (POY for short).  I admired the officials who were honored by GOVERNING and decided that I wanted to be considered in that group.  I wanted to drive change in public service.

This conviction led me to consider how to move myself from an advisory role (I served mostly as a lawyer providing counsel to other decision-makers) to becoming a decision-maker myself.  I wondered how to make the jump to leadership and management.  My thought was that I had so much to learn about running organizations that I wanted to start small.  At the end of 1996, I “downsized” myself from a White House office to run a watershed association in New Jersey – the Stony Brook Watershed Association.  My new adventure had begun.

Stony Brook is a wonderful organization with a tremendous history – and had 5 full time employees when I started.  I had no idea about the scale of what I did not know.  As quickly as I could, I had to learn about building budgets, capital and operating costs, pay scales and equity, maintenance and public safety, advocacy and fundraising, daily operational management and external affairs. The number and frequency of my mistakes was paralleled only by how much I learned every day.

Since then I have been fortunate to have the privilege of running several superb organizations that had ever increasing size or complexity – from New Jersey Future (a statewide smart growth organization) to the District Department of the Environment (I was the first confirmed Director of DC’s environmental agency) to DC Water – one of the largest water utilities in the world.  Throughout I continue to make mistakes, learn from them, and I hope, reduce their frequency!

Now, in 2014, after 18 long years learning the craft of leadership and management – I have made it back to be considered by GOVERNING for the POY.  A few hard-won lessons:

Patience.  For me at least, this was and is not a short road.  I regularly counsel my younger colleagues not to expect or even seek too much too soon.  There are the superstars who are able to lead large organizations right away.  But for me and for most of us, experience does matter.  Desire comes early, wisdom takes time.  Slow down, soak in everything, and learn, learn, learn.

Teamwork.  The most important factor of my success has been the wonderful people I have worked with along the way.  From Kim Otis, Nelson Obus and Noelle MacKay at Stony Brook, Barbara Lawrence and Chris Sturm at NJ Future, to Bicky Corman, Alan Heymann and Chris Carew at DDOE, to Willy Walker, Allen Lew and the huge cast of characters at DC Water – surrounding myself with good people with great talent is perhaps the single most important factor to success.

Heart.  For me, achieving any success is meaningless unless the cause matters.  No matter if quicker success may be attainable in some area that does not capture your heart, I always recommend engaging on issues that stir your soul.  The long hours, blood, sweat and tears, and the energy to overcome the inevitable stumbles, comes from knowing the worth of a cause.

Mind.  I have been extra fortunate that not only have I been engaged on issues that matter to me, but they have been so very interesting and intellectually challenging.

Vision.  I have found that starting on a journey with a sense of where I want to go – to a lofty horizon – motivates me.  Yet at any particular moment, I am only working on one or two steps along the way – making sure to take each step and then go to the next.  Look to the horizon to make sure your path is true, but then focus back on your next few steps.  Keep going and you will get there!

Flexibility.  No matter how well you’ve planned, be open and even seek new opportunities.  I knew I wanted to have a leadership role in the environmental arena.  I never dreamed 18 years ago that I would work for a water utility.  The overall goal has not changed, but the specific route has changed dramatically.  I have been extraordinarily fortunate in the opportunities that have come my way – but keeping an eye out for them, even those that seem far afield, has made sure I was ready.

Perseverance.  Mistakes and failure is part of any meaningful path.  Certainly learn from them, but never give up because of them.  I have found that particularly when I have been open about admitting a mistake and the lesson I have learned, those around me have accepted my apology and been willing to move forward.

Thank you GOVERNING for considering me for this award – and for giving it to someone in a public water utility.  Our field has some of the best public servants I have ever met – and I have learned from my colleagues on a daily basis – and still do to this day. I pledge not to stop moving forward, not to stop learning from those around me, not to stop doing my best to surround myself with the best people.

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One Comment

  • George: From the team at the Governing Institute, Governing and e.Republic, your blog is the best Thanksgiving gift we could receive. You are so deserving of this honor and we look forward to presenting the award in person on Dec 4 in DC. You are an inspiration to us and to all those who have the good fortune to know you and be inspired by you!

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