How Successful People Think – Book Interview

I recently interviewed Tom Halverson, Mn/DOT Chief Financial Officer. We talked about the 8th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life by John  Maxwell.


Tang: You became the new chief financial officer at Mn/DOT in February 2010 after working in private industry for over 30 years? What brought you to Minnesota and to Mn/DOT? 

Halverson: Halverson:  I had lived away from family for many years and had set a goal to return when I had reached 50.  It has been an absolute delight to be back home. 

I was intrigued to Mn/DOT by the leadership style, vision, direction set forth by Commissioner Tom Sorel. I saw this as a great opportunity to learn something new and make a contribution. 

Tang: How has it been going for you? What is the biggest challenge you face on your job and see in the public sector? 

Halverson: It has been great working with the Commissioner’s staff and people at Mn/DOT. I would say the biggest challenge is the public sector investment decision making and internal control processes lack the rigor and accountability I have seen in the private sector.    

Tang: Now let’s get to the book. Why did you pick this book? 

Halverson: I think the essence of the book is about change leadership. Being aware of our thoughts and our thinking process is the first step for change. 

I like books that are concise and to the point, this little book fits my taste in both content and style. 

Tang: Why is it important to know and understand how successful people think? 

Halverson: How people think makes a difference in how successful they can become. Like the author says, “If you change your thinking, you can change your life.”   

Tang: What are the different aspects of good thinking that successful thinkers have? 

Halverson: In the book, Maxwell talks about the following eleven skills of thinking: big-picture thinking, focused thinking, creative thinking, realistic thinking, strategic thinking, possibility thinking, reflective thinking, popular thinking, shared thinking, unselfish thinking, and bottom-line thinking. 

Tang:  Which aspect of these eleven thinking is most important in your mind? 

Halverson: Good thinking embodies all these different thinking skills. However, the big-picture and strategic thinking are the most critical ones in my mind. 

To be leaders, you have to be a big-picture thinker who can see what others see and don’t see. They can think beyond their day to day activities, see different perspectives, and have the maturity to provide leadership direction in the organizations. 

Another important one for me is the unselfish thinking. Unselfish thinking brings personal fulfillment, adds value to others, makes you part of something greater than yourself, and creates a legacy. When you mentor someone, give yourself to someone, it’s like planting a seed. The rewards will be multiplied. If you want to make a difference in someone’s life, in the organization and in the world, be an unselfish thinker. 

Tang: Do you have to possess all these thinking skills to be a good leader? 

Halverson: No, no one is perfect or good at everything. That’s why it is important for a leader to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and be surrounded by people who have different skills that can both supplement and complement a leader’s weakness. 

Tang: What do you think is your weak area when you evaluate yourself based on these eleven thinking skills? 

Halverson: Probably the creative thinking aspect. As someone with a financial background, I tend to be stronger on the practical and analytical side. Sometimes I get these light bulb moments after someone said something and I think to myself: “Why didn’t I think of that?” 

Tang: What is your leadership style? And what is your strength? 

Halverson: When I was younger, I had more of a dictatorial style.  But after 13 years of being in senior executive change management roles, I have learned to listen and to value collaborative teamwork. 

I like to think of myself as a change leader. I am a big-picture person. I am passionate about making a difference.  I like to bring experience to play and challenge the status quo, and go into uncharted territory. There are no boundaries and limitation in the thinking process. I like to be out there meeting frontline people, at the grassroots levels who are the driving force of the success and failure of the organization. 

A fundamental principle in my leadership is to listen, learn and lead. 

Tang: What advice do you have for young aspiring leaders?       

Halverson: Become a rounded person; be open minded; get exposed to different ideas and people; be willing to put yourself in positions outside your comfort zone; have broad based interests and go beyond what you know; be willing to challenge status quo; challenge yourself to find better ways to do things; understand your internal and external customers and their wants and needs, and do your best to meet them. You can’t do everything yourself, so surround yourself with people who can do better than you. 

Tang: Please share some quotes from the book that are very meaningful for you. 

Halverson: “The joy is in creating, not maintaining.” (p. 23)

 “None of us is as smart as all of us.” (p. 93)

Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits. 

Halverson: I read everything that comes across my desk. But outside of work, I don’t do much reading. Regretfully reading is getting hard on my eyes.  Now my learning comes from interacting with other people. 

Tang: What do you love to do in your spare time? 

Halverson: I love to dance and golf. I love to be outdoors and do something with people. 

Tang: I heard you are very good at ballroom dancing. And thanks for being the first to sign up for Café Mn/DOT, a Mn/DOT version of “America’s Got Talent.” I am looking forward to your performance. Maybe you can teach some folds like me who don’t know how to dance.    

Halverson: I certainly can.

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