Be A Leader Who Inspires And Transforms

[Final presentation at Emerging Leaders Institute on 3/23/2012, Part.1]

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” 

This is a quote by John Quincy Adams, the 6th US President. I like it as a definition for leader.

I started working at MnDOT in 2000 as a technical services librarian. My job responsibility was cataloging, so I worked more with library materials than with people.

My work was detail-oriented and challenging in some way (technically and intellectually), but not stimulating and challenging for me, content-wise. I liked my job, however, cataloging reports about hot-mix asphalt, traffic flow, work zone safety, snow plow, pavements or bridges all day was not exciting and fulfilling.

I remember a former coworker, whose work was monotonous and not intellectually challenging, said more than once: “I come to work to relax, and I go home to work.” With two little kids at home, I also felt more relaxed at work than at home, like my co-worker.

For the first 7 years, I was more or less disengaged. With disengaged, I didn’t mean I didn’t do my job well. I was just not very interested in and involved with what was going on within the organization outside of my office, and with the leadership. I mostly just knew the people in my own office.

I had two commissioners during those 7 years who were not visible and engaged with employees, at least that was my impression. I hardly saw them and knew what they were doing.

Then on Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W Bridge collapsed. MnDOT was in spotlight, in a bad way. A few months later, former MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau was ousted by the legislature. A new Commissioner came on board.

When I read the news and found out that the new Commissioner was a Woodbury resident, and his kid went to the same school as my two kids, I was curious and excited. At that time I was writing a weekly column for the local newspaper in Woodbury. I wanted to meet him and introduce him to the local community.

Commissioner Sorel accepted my invitation for an interview. I met with him, his wife and his son at Woodbury Central Park, and wrote an article about him for Woodbury Bulletin.

After Sorel became the Commissioner, he had a meeting with employees in the Central Office cafeteria. He introduced himself and his family. He talked about his leadership philosophy of servant leadership and shared his vision of rebuilding trust and being transparent with the public. He was a lot more personal, visible and transparent than the previous commissioners I knew.

When the new org chart came out with Sorel as the new commissioner, I noticed a change. Instead of having the commissioner on the top of the org chart, as we always had, he placed the citizens of Minnesota on the very top, followed by the governor, the commissioner was the third in command.  It was a change that most people probably didn’t even notice. But it made a great impression on me. It showed humility in him.

A few months later on my birthday, I received an email from Commissioner Sorel wishing me happy birthday. It was a total surprise. Then I learned that every MnDOT employee received the happy birthday greeting on his/her special day. A simple act of kindness and thoughtfulness, it touched people. [TouchPoints – leadership moments]

When Sorel attended staff meetings, he often talked about and recommended books he read. I love reading and learning. An idea born at a staff meeting prompted my action.

In July 2009, I approached Commissioner Sorel to start a Commissioner’s Reading Corner book discussion program, he supported the idea.

In April 2010, MnDOT Commissioner’s Reading Corner officially started with Commissioner Sorel leading the first book discussion. Read the interview here.

The purpose of the monthly book discussion is to encourage learning and leadership development, to facilitate conversations between leaders and employees.

So in the last 3-4 years, because of one leader who inspired me personally, I became more engaged and involved. I sought out opportunities to contribute to the organization beyond my office and my regular job responsibilities.

In addition to the Commissioner’s Reading Corner, I was involved in organizing the brown bag learning and other health and wellness events at MnDOT. I also helped organize the first two Minnesota State Capitol Run @ Work Day 5K event in 2009 and 2010.

When I interviewed Admin Commissioner Spencer Cronk for ELI in Oct. 2011, I told him about MnDOT Commissioner’s Reading Corner. He became interested. A few months later, in Feb, 2012, he started a similar book discussion program called AdminReads. He emailed me and said: “Your work with the MnDOT Commissioner’s Reading Corner has inspired Admin to launch our own book club! Thanks for the great idea.”

I wanted to be a leader like Commissioner Sorel who inspires and transforms lives.