Through the Labyrinth – book interview

Photo by Jim Byerly

Below is an interview I did in January 2012 with Fay Simer, Senior Transportation Planner at MnDOT, about the 19th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series: Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders  by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli.

Tang: What motivated you to step up and want to lead this book discussion?

Simer: I think the topic of how women become leaders is relevant, particularly in the transportation industry, a field traditionally dominated by men.  I saw the topic had not yet been brought up as part of the Commissioner’s Reader Corner and I thought this book could add something to the discussion series.

Tang: Why did you pick this book?

Simer: Many authors on the topic of women’s advancement essentially tell women that they either need to behave “more like men,” i.e., more aggressively, or “more like women,” i.e., more collaboratively. Through the Labyrinth stood out to me because it discusses the merits of different leadership styles and helps readers understand how their application in different professional settings is typically perceived by others.

Tang: What do you like most about this book?

Simer: The authors identify building social capital as an essential tool used by women who have achieved notable professional success.  As a board member of the Women’s Transportation Seminar in Minnesota, a professional organization with a mission to advance women in the transportation field, this book validates my belief in our work and the relevance of the group’s mission.

Tang: Traditionally, the biggest problem women face in their careers is a glass-ceiling in leadership positions.   Nowadays, more women are in leadership positions. However, female leaders still face more obstacles and challenges than their male counterparts. What kinds of issues do women leaders have to struggle with today?

The book confirms that many of the usual suspects still contribute to the “labyrinth” of obstacles women face in their climb to the top.  Married women still spend more hours per week on household chores and child-rearing than married men (though men’s participation is increasing steadily); women still face stereotypes regarding what behaviors and attitudes are appropriate for their gender, and many organizational cultures do not support women seeking leadership experience.  The point is that there is no clear path for a woman seeking to attain the top of her field; many women negotiate these barriers on their own.  Discussing these barriers openly will help us learn how to better support women collectively as they advance in their careers.   

Tang:  You have taken on a leadership role with the Minnesota Women’s Transportation Seminar. What kind of dilemma and obstacles have you experienced as an emerging women leader?

Simer: I am the type of person that needs to be challenged and I like pushing myself in different directions.  One of the things I appreciate about my board position on the Women’s Transportation Seminar is the opportunity to take on roles that aren’t part of my job description at MnDOT.  Whether I’m organizing an event, leading other volunteers, or setting the board’s initiatives for the year, I like the chance to be creative and to push myself to try different aspects of leadership activities that are new to me.

Tang: The authors say, to increase gender equality in the workplace, change must take place on four levels: the culture, the organization, the family and the individual. What can MnDOT and what can individuals do to improve our workplace for women leaders?

Simer: The book points out that an organization’s social culture can obstruct women’s access to advancement opportunities as much as individual prejudices.  The authors note that demands for long work hours, travel, and the ability to relocate- necessities in many managerial positions, can be especially difficult for women, who typically have more household obligations than men.  In addition, the book notes that women face challenges obtaining appropriately demanding work assignments, called developmental job experiences that are prerequisites for promotion.  I think these are areas that leaders at MnDOT could take a closer look as they determine how to distribute advancement opportunities equitably across the organization.

Tang:  What are the most important lessons you have learned from the book? What are the most important ideas you would like people to take away from this book?

Simer: Studies on corporate executives and boards of directors in US firms find that the inclusion of women is associated with stronger financial performance.  Young men entering the workforce are more likely to question why they don’t see women in managerial positions than why they do.  Promoting parity among women and men’s leadership opportunities is an organizational concern, not a “women’s” concern. 

Tang: What lessons have you learned in your career that you would like to share with other women and would benefit other women to become more successful leaders?

Simer: I place great value on the relationships I’ve had with mentors throughout my career development.  My advice is to seek out people with qualities you admire and to learn as much from their leadership style as you can.

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

Simer: I love reading!  For anyone interested in an honest and insightful account of one woman’s rise to the top of her field, I highly recommend Katherine Graham’s Personal History.

The Power of Full Engagement – book interview

Photo by David Gonzalez

Below is an interview I did in December 2011 with Eric Davis, Enterprise Risk Management Project Manager (He was MnDOT Human Resources Director at the time) about the 18th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series: The Power of Full Engagement : Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

Tang: Why did you pick this book?

Davis: In the first chapter, the authors ask their readers “If you could wake up tomorrow with significantly more positive, focused energy to invest at work and with your family, how significantly would that change your life for the better?  As a leader, how valuable would it be to bring more positive energy and passion to the workplace?  If those you lead could call on more positive energy, how would it affect their relationships with one another, and the quality of service that they deliver to customers and clients?”

There is so very much competing for our time, attention and energy.  Feeling starved for time, we assume we have no choice but to try and cram as much as possible into every day.  But as the authors point out, managing our time efficiently is no guarantee that we will bring sufficient energy to whatever it is we are doing.  The authors assert that “energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.”

Tang: What do you like most about this book?

Davis: The book offers a number of case studies and a few were uncomfortably familiar. I recognized in myself many of the same destructive habits that may have allowed me to meet some short-term goals, but risked my long-term health and most important relationship.  I took some inspiration from these stories and applied the author’s principles for key energy management principles.  Although I can’t claim to habitually renew my energy in all four dimensions of life (physical, spiritual, mental, emotional) as the authors advise, I do generally recognize when my engagement and energy predictably falters and know I need to make energy renewal a priority.

Tang: Recently the Office of Human Resources has been conducting an Employee Engagement Survey agency-wide, one division at a time. Is this the first time MnDOT has done such a survey? What do you try to get out of the survey and what do you plan to do with the result?

Davis: No.  There was a department-wide, comprehensive attempt to assess employee satisfaction and engagement in the 90s.  Unfortunately, the results were not very actionable and it was difficult to respond to identified concerns.  The approach of using a limited set of questions focused on actionable items known to influence an employee’s engagement and conducting the survey in divisions of the agency allows leaders to more effectively respond to what we learn from the survey.  In that sense, I think what we are doing now is more valuable and effective. 

Tang: Is there anything from the book you learned that has been helpful in this survey effort?

Davis: The authors write “Leaders are the stewards of organizational energy – in companies, organizations and even in families.  They inspire or demoralize others first by how effectively they manage their own energy and next by how well they mobilize, focus, invest and renew the collective energy of those they lead.”

The survey gives MnDOT leaders some valuable insight into what employees believe about their own experience and the opportunity to better influence engagement. 

Tang: The book mentions a Gallup poll showing that less than 30 percent of American workers are “fully engaged,” 55 percent are “not engaged” and 19 percent are ”actively disengaged.”  How engaged are MnDOT employees based on our Employee Engagement Survey result so far?

Davis: So far, the survey suggests the majority of MnDOT employees are highly engaged.  In general, the majority of MnDOT employees report they understand what is expected of them at work, have access to the necessary tools and resources to do their work, understand how their job makes a difference and are willing to give their very best efforts to get a quality job done.  Perhaps one of the most encouraging things we’ve learned from our survey is how nearly every MnDOT employee takes tremendous pride in serving the public.  Despite the public and political discourse that at times can be very hostile to public employees, MnDOT employees have sustained a strong sense of pride in the service they provide to the public. 

Tang:  What does it mean to be fully engaged?

Davis: To be fully engaged, we must be physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused and spiritual aligned with a purpose greater than our immediate self-interest.  As the authors explain, “It means being able to immerse yourself in the mission you are on, whether that is grappling with a creative challenge at work, managing a group of people on a project, spending time with loved ones or simply having fun.”

Tang:  What are the core principles of full engagement?

Davis: The authors explain full engagement requires:

(1)   Our ability to draw on four related sources of energy, our physical capacity, our emotional capacity, our mental capacity and our spiritual capacity.  Peak performance under pressure is achieved when all levels are working together.

(2)   Our ability to balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and with underuse.

(3)   Our ability to push beyond our normal limits, training in the same systematic what that elite athletes train.

(4)   Our ability to incorporate positive energy rituals – highly specific routines for managing and renewing our energy for sustained high performance. 

Tang:  What can you as the HR director (Or What can MnDOT) do to help employee become more or fully engaged physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually?

Davis: As leaders we need to model and encourage everyone we work with to recognize and act on the wisdom of occasionally “stepping off the endless treadmill of deadlines and obligations” to take time for our reflection and renewal.  Emails, cell-phones, and the like can easily addict us to the urgent and now and fill us with an inclination to live our lives in a perpetual state of crisis management.  However, sustained high performance depends as much on how we renew and recover energy in these four dimensions of our lives as how we expend it.  When leaders attend to the well-being of employees and people feel strong and resilient, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritual, they perform better.   They win, their families win, our communities win, and MnDOT wins.

Tang:  What are the most important lessons you have learned from the book? What are the most important ideas you would like people to take away from this book?

Davis: Stress is not necessarily the problem, nor is the quantity of time available to us.  “The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quality of energy available to us is not.”  As the authors succinctly assert, “Performance, health and happiness are grounded in the skillful management of energy.”  While in our lifetime there will undeniably be real life crises and tragedies, difficult relationships, toxic environments, but we often have more control over our energy that we ordinarily realize.  “The more we take responsibility for the energy we bring to the world, the more empowered and productive we become,” Loehr and Schwartz.

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

Davis: “Most of us are just trying to do the best that we can.  When demand exceeds our capacity, we begin to make expedient choices that get us through our days and nights, but take a toll over time.  We survive on too little sleep, wolf down fast foods on the run, fuel up with coffee and cool down with alcohol.  Faced with relentless demands at work, we become short-tempered and easily distracted.  We return home from long days at work feeling exhausted and often experience our families not as a source of joy and renewal, but as one more demand in an already overburdened life.”

“Will and discipline are far more limited resources than most of us realize.  If you have to think about something each time you do it, the likelihood is that won’t keep doing it for very long.  The status quo has a magnetic pull on us.”

“While it isn’t always in our power to change our external conditions, we can train to better manage our inner state.  We aim to help corporate athletes use the full range of their capacities to thrive in the most difficult circumstances and to emerge from stressful periods stronger, healthier, and eager for the next challenge.”

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

Davis: I often find I’m reading more than one book at a time and would like to cultivate a habit of just reading one book at a time so I can enjoy and learn from the book better.  I permit myself to divide my attention a bit too thin.  Riding the bus for my morning and evening commute is the best time for me to read.  I like to have a book to read for my education and development in the morning and something strictly for fun and enjoyment after work.

Disciplined Dreaming – book interview

 Below is an interniew I did on Sept. 29, 2011 with Tiana Carretta, Commissioner’s Office Intern & Building Services Intern. We talked about the 15th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series: Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity by Josh Linkner.

Tang:  Most people at MnDOT don’t know you. Before we talk about the book, would you please share a little bit about your background?  

Carretta: I started at MnDOT in May 2009 at the Maplewood Lab where I also worked at the MnROAD Facility. I came to the Commissioner’s Office in June2010. In August, I started an architecture internship in the Building Services Dept. I am currently working part-time in both the Commissioner’s Office and in Maintenance. I am finishing up my last semester in the Architecture Program at the University of Minnesota and will be graduating this December.  

Tang:  You participated in our March book discussion on Millennials and the different generations in the workplace. How is your experience of working at MnDOT as a Millennial?  

Carretta: I think one of the best things about MnDOT is that there is an array of different generations that are all working together to make MnDOT a world class organization. I think every generation has a different way of working and I’ve had a great experience learning from both seasoned and newer employees.  

Tang: Why did you pick this book?  

Carretta: Commissioner Sorel recommended this book to me. He thought I would like it because it’s about creativity. I think because my major is in the creative field, it was a good pick.   

Tang: What is the book about?  

Carretta: The book is about how to increase creativity, fuel competitive advantage, and build successful businesses. The author uses a 5-step process to achieve the goal — ask (define objectives), prepare (mind, culture, and environment), discover (ways and techniques of creativity), ignite (the sparks of creativity) and launch (implementation). The author attempts to engage all readers to develop their creativity muscle through a disciplined process.  

Tang: What do you like most about this book?  

Carretta: I like the book because I think I can relate to it on a personal level. In the Architecture program, every day I work designing and creating. In a way, the ideas in the book validate what I am doing every day at school. I think for MnDOT, the book is helpful in defining ways to expand our creative thinking. While I think MnDOT employees are innovative, the book explains new ideas and techniques to think about and try that would generate even more creative and innovative ideas. 

Tang: What do you not like about this book?  

Carretta: Although the real life examples used in the book are all from the private sector, I think that there is a lot to learn from them about being an agile, creative organization. Learning about developing creativity is especially important for the public sector because we have constrains and challenges that the private sector does not have.  

Tang:  What is the most important idea(s) you would like people to take away from this book? 

Carretta: I think the most important idea is that everyone has the capacity and potential to be creative. As the author explains, creativity is one of the most important ingredients of personal and business success.  The book provides practical and applicable ways of developing creativity.  

Tang:  After working at MnDOT for two years, what is your impression of MnDOT’s culture and environment in terms of creativity? What are we doing right to build a creative culture and environment? If we are not doing well in this area, how can we improve?  

Carretta: Although I’ve been here for a little over two years, I still think of myself as a newer employee because I’m constantly learning more about MnDOT. For example, when I worked on the new display case in the CO Ground Floor lobby, I learned about the many innovative and creative projects that earned MnDOT its awards.  

In the offices that I’ve worked at during my limited time here at MnDOT, I think that the organization is doing a nice job building a creative environment. The Commissioner’s Reading Corner is a nice example of our creative culture. 

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

Carretta: Creativity is defined as “the ability to think of a common idea in an uncommon way.” — Randall Dunn. p. 25  

“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.” — Abraham Lincoln. p. 109  

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

Carretta: Because I’m in school, most of my time is dedicated to assigned readings for my architecture classes. In my spare time, my favorite online newspaper is Fast Company Design as it tracks trends in the design and business worlds.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership – book interview

Photo by Jim Byerly

Below is a book interview I did on Aug. 1, 2011 with Tracy Hatch, MnDOT Chief Financial Officer. We talked about the 14th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell.


Tang: Why did you pick this book?

Hatch: I picked the book because I’ve read other work by this author and really enjoyed his perspective. John Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, and author who has written more than 50 books, primarily focused on leadership. I have read two of them – Failing Forward: Turning Your Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success (2000) and The 360° Leader (2006)

Tang: What do you like about this book?

Hatch: The book was first published in 1998 and then revised and updated in 2007 as the 10th anniversary edition. In the book the author sums up everything he has learned about leadership over more than 40 years and distills it into the 21 principles. They are very concise, practical and applicable. I also like the real life stories and examples he shares to illustrate the lessons and principles.

Tang: Among the 21 laws discussed in the book, which one resonated more with you and why?

Hatch: The law of process – leadership develops daily, not in a day – speaks more to me than the others.

Leadership development is an on-going learning process of self-discipline and perseverance. Leaders are learners. Maxwell says: “Leadership doesn’t develop in a day. It takes a lifetime. To lead tomorrow, learn today.” You need to be intentional about your priorities and what you spend your time on.  There are always so many things demanding your time and attention, the law of process really spoke to me about being deliberate in those choices.

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

Hatch: “The best place for a leader isn’t always the top position. It isn’t the most prominent or powerful place. It’s the place where he or she can serve the best and add the most value to other people.” – p. 52

“To build trust, a leader must exhibit competence, connection, and character.” — p. 64

“People will tolerate honest mistakes, but if you violate their trust you will find it very difficult to ever regain their confidence. That is one reason that you need to treat trust as your most precious asset. You may fool your boss but you can never fool your colleagues or subordinates.” – P. 64 

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

Hatch: I enjoy reading. Except for some classics, I mostly read nonfiction – biographies, politics, leadership and management. Unfortunately I don’t have much time to read right now, but I always have a book within reach in case I can steal a few minutes for it.

Tang:  Tell us a little bit about your background.

Hatch: I am a native Minnesotan. I went to Northwestern College in Iowa and have a degree in Business Administration. I have been with the state government for 15 years. I have worked at the departments of Correction, Education and Human Services before coming to MnDOT.

Tang: You started your career at MnDOT in March 2009 as budget director. In March 2011 you were promoted from your position as the business manager for Operations Division to MnDOT’s chief financial officer. Congratulations for your promotion. What is your secret?

Hatch: You better ask my boss and colleagues the question.  

I want to go back to the quote I shared earlier: “To build trust, a leader must exhibit competence, connection, and character.

I think it’s a combination of character, competence and connection. In my first two years at MnDOT, I worked hard to understand the MnDOT business, gain knowledge about the different offices, build relationships and trust with people, and become a more rounded person. I think coming into the department with a fresh perspective  and the MnDOT knowledge I’ve gained over the past two years has really helped me to prepare to take the step into this position.

Tang:  Luck might also play a role. I think Commissioner Sorel has been very intentional in promoting younger generation to the upper management level. I remember when I interviewed him for the book on millennials and generational differences, I asked him about job assignments and promotion based on capabilities that millennials are accustomed to versus seniority that often happens in government, he said he looked at people’s capability and performance, not their years of services. Our MnDOT reorganization and upper management change at the beginning of the year was a testimony to his words.

Hatch: I agree.

Tang:  What are some of the new things or lessons you have learned in your new role that you would like to share?

Hatch: I gained a new appreciation for the staff in the Office of Financial Management, and all of the staff that work in administrative areas throughout the department, who work really hard every day behind the scenes.  The administrative functions are as complicated, difficult, and important as all of the other portions of our business.  I’m continually amazed at the dedication and commitment of the staff. I very much appreciate that they all love this department and, as we say, bleed orange along with the rest of the department.  I appreciate all MnDOT employees. After all, it’s what we all do together that makes MnDOT work.  WE ARE MnDOT…and proud!!

Moneyball – book interview

Below is an interview I did on May 9, 2011 with Nick Thompson, MnDOT Division Director for Policy, Safety & Strategic Initiatives. We talked about the 13th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.

Tang: Why did you pick this book?

Thompson: I know I picked a book that is an unusual selection for the Commissioner’s Reading Corner. The book was published in 2003 and I read it in 2005. It stuck with me because of the transformational change in the story. I see it as an example of approaches we need to take in the public sector.  There are not many books that I will read twice, but this is one of the few I was interested in reading again. I like the author Michael Lewis. I read everything he publishes. 

Tang: What is the book about?

Thompson: The basis for the book is the question Michael Lewis asked himself – how did the Oakland A’s, one of baseball’s poorest teams as measured by payroll, managed to achieve a spectacular winning record?

Lewis explains how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, was able to maximize the market of talent with a minimum of spending. Beane used a new kind of thinking and an innovative method of business intelligence and leadership to build a successful and winning baseball team with a smaller budget than the competition. His way of doing business challenged the conventional baseball wisdom and changed the way baseball is played.  He challenged a way of thinking that was around for a century because they had to in order to get results.

Tang: Did you read and like the book because you were a baseball fan?

Thompson: No. Actually the book turned me into a baseball fan. It changed my thinking on baseball. Now I look at baseball from a new and different perspective.

Tang: What do you like about this book?

Thompson: I like how the author uses storytelling to present and solve complex problems in an engaging way.  As an organization, we face similar complex issues, and through effective storytelling we can have a better dialog with our customers and solve the issues and challenges we face.

Tang: What are the most important things you take away from this book that can be applied to your work or life?

Thompson:  Transformational change requires creative thinking and an innovative approach to problem solving. Don’t be afraid to challenge conventional thinking and wisdom in order to bring about transformational change. Defy tradition. Just because we have always done things this way doesn’t mean we can’t try new things and new ways of doing things.

Use data and information intelligently to solve complicated problems and make efficient decisions. Ask questions differently to bring about new ideas and solutions. Instead of focusing on problem solving, use business intelligence to play ahead of the game.

On many fronts at MnDOT, we are trying to find ways that lead to the transformational change. With our funding and budget challenges, we need to find ways to make low cost investments that have higher impact and can yield better results.

Tang: Can you please share an example to illustrate what you mean?

Thompson: MnDOT’s initiative Toward Zero Deaths is a good example of using data analysis and traffic accident information to reduce traffic fatalities on Minnesota roads. For examples, instead of looking at each fatal crash separately, we analyze the data and find commonalities among all crashes, and find solutions to prevent similar crashes from happening.  We also step away from just an engineering approach to the problem.  We ask different questions, we look at our data and information differently, and we build and operate our highway systems in many ways differently then we did before TZD.  And the results have been very positive.

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

Thompson: “…at the bottom of the Oakland experience is a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why.”

“Major League Baseball had no sense of the fans as customers, and so hadn’t the first clue of what the customer wanted.”

“If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.”

“…intellectual courage was his (Billy Beane) contribution.  He’d had the nerve to seize upon ideas rejected, or at least not taken too seriously… and put them into practice.”

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

Thompson: I did not grow up as a reader. What turned me on to reading after graduating from college were some espionage and thriller books by Tom Clancy and John Grisham.

Now I like to read nonfiction books – history, especially during the era of industrialization, and biographies. I read about Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. A recent book I read was The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

Now I don’t spend as much time in books, but I read extensively web and magazine articles across a wide variety of topics.

To find reading materials, I read some book reviews and go to bookstore to browse.

Tang: Last, but not least, congratulations for your promotion. In January you were promoted from the Office Director for Policy Analysis, Research & Innovation to the Division Director for Policy, Safety & Strategic Initiatives. It was a big promotion. How has life changed for you? What are some of the new things or lessons you have learned in your new role that you would like to share?

Thompson: I am still in the learning phase. It’s a big learning curve for me – dealing with new responsibilities and new issues, getting to know the different offices within the Division and meeting new people. I enjoy working with the new team. It’s been great and fun. I am looking forward to the new challenges that come with the new position and responsibilities.