John Florez: We must keep our institutions responsive to change

Published: Saturday, June 21 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Keeping our institutions responsive to change requires electing leaders who have an understanding of a changing environment, an understanding of what is in the hearts and minds of citizens, and a vision of what ought to be done.

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After my giving a “rousing” keynote speech several years ago at an annual Utah employment-training program about the need to select leaders who are willing to risk in running organizations, guess who got the outstanding employee of the year award: the agency’s auditor — for keeping the books.

Seems we reward allegiance to process and punish risk taking. Then we wonder why our public institutions resist change and go to seed. Our public employees are told to follow the rules and keep reports on what they do, not what they produce. At a time when innovation and creativity is the currency needed in today’s rapidly changing and global world, our institutions, especially our schools, are ineffective because our leaders stifle risk taking. Utah’s current administration’s preoccupation on efficiency ignores productivity — focus is on process not results. The message is clear: follow the rules, don’t risk.

It’s a sign of a dying organization where process and doing things right is rewarded, rather than doing the right thing. It’s a malady that quickly affects public institutions that are monopolies. Unless there are elected leaders willing to use their political capital to monitor to make sure the agency carries out its legislative intent, agencies become sclerotic and ineffective. Many lose or stray from their original intent and should be laid to rest.

Another malady that affects public institutions is the administrators, the mid-managers. As Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel said, “Senior managers got to where they are by having been good at what they do … so it’s not surprising that they will keep implementing the same strategic and tactical moves that worked for them during the course of their careers. … I call this phenomenon the inertia of success. It is extremely dangerous.” However, Utah administrators are often victims of policymakers who fail to provide direction, are intimidating, and tend to blame administrators when things go wrong and there is public outcry.

Utah has a wealth of talent in its public employees, yet wastes it with an oppressive workplace culture that doesn’t allow for failure. Successful organizations do the opposite; they encourage risk taking and innovation. Their leaders establish an environment where workers feel trusted and respected. Imagine what such an environment would do for teachers and students? Policymakers ought to offer a clear vision and expectations for staff; and, staff ought to provide policymakers with thoughtful policy analysis and recommend actions for policymakers to make decisions. They are hired to give their opinion and not wait to be told what do.

“Organizations go to seed when the people in them go to seed. And they awaken when the people awaken,” John W. Gardner said.

Keeping our institutions responsive to change requires electing leaders who have an understanding of a changing environment, an understanding of what is in the hearts and minds of citizens, and a vision of what ought to be done. Then they should get about the business of renewing our public institutions consistent with our values. The renewing starts with policymakers creating a place where workers are trusted and valued and a work environment that encourages risk taking, creativity and allows for failure.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee, as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and on the Commission on Hispanic Education. Email: jdflorez@comcast

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