Paul S. Edwards: Mike Leavitt talks about how to bring people and organizations together

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Former Health and Human Services Secretary and Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt visits with Deseret News editor Paul Edwards about his new book and how to encourage greater cooperation across organizational lines Monday, Sept. 30, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Last year, Deseret News CEO Clark Gilbert and I had the privilege of sitting down with Don Graham, longtime CEO and Chairman of the Washington Post Companies, to discuss innovations in the newspaper industry.

Before Graham would talk shop, he wanted to talk about Utah politicians. And he quickly identified former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as a stand out.

He spoke enthusiastically about Leavitt’s effectiveness in his cabinet roles as EPA Administrator and Secretary of Health and Human Services. He admitted he didn’t always agree with Leavitt’s policy positions, but he expressed undiluted admiration for Leavitt’s integrity and his success at bringing diverse people together to solve complex problems.

It was against that backdrop of Graham’s informed praise for Leavitt’s effectiveness that I recently read the book “Finding Allies, Building Alliances: 8 Elements that Bring and Keep People Together” by Leavitt and his longtime colleague Rich McKeown (Jossey-Bass 2013). This concise and informative book, which is meeting with critical praise, uses helpful real-world examples from Leavitt and McKeown’s personal experience to provide a blueprint for collaborative alliances.

I had the opportunity last week to visit with Leavitt at his offices in Salt Lake City and discuss the book. What follows are highlights from our conversation.

How did the elements for successful alliance-based problem solving begin to crystalize in your thinking?

When I was governor, I began to recognize that with virtually every complex problem that we made progress on there was a formalized collaboration. In each of these situations you had dozens of different entities and opinions. I realized these were impossibly complex problems, unless you created some kind of construct for formalizing everyone affected by them. It was only once you gave shape to these things, and provided organization and leadership, that you started to make progress.

But I realized I needed some criteria for deciding whether or not to invest in these processes. So I literally wrote down observations about what worked and what didn’t and began to refine those. It was a combination of my own observations, discussions between Rich and me, and then, when I was at the EPA and Health and Human Services, we had some ways to “pressure test” our criteria against real world experience. Some of this is intuitive to people, but you can get a lot better at it. So we concluded we ought to write about it because the insights are valuable.

Are there institutional or cultural bases for trust that are particularly useful for collaborative networks?

Good alliances are essentially private special purpose governments that people voluntarily design in order to do something important. In a communist country the elements culturally and legally for that kind of thinking don’t exist. There, people come to a table because they are compelled to a table.

Collaboration works only because people are there voluntarily, and the check and balance that keeps people there is the fact that if their situation ever gets to the point that they are better outside than inside, they can leave. It’s a marketplace of ideas and interests that keeps these things alive. It requires freedom and it requires the order of law.

Something uniquely valuable about our democratic form of government is that we can, within the context of those laws, find ways to collaboratively solve problems in a very rapid way.

You identify eight elements required for successful collaboration. Are some elements more difficult to achieve than others?

The second element – what we call a convener of stature has unique challenges. People who know how to use convening power are rare. Many a good idea fails because of lack of effective convening.

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