Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel leaves MnDOT

It was not a happy moment for me and many MnDOT employees when we received the surprising email on Thursday morning from Commissioner Tom Sorel that he would be leaving MnDOT at the end of the month to become the President and CEO of AAA Minneapolis.

I knew the day would come, but it came unexpectedly.  I hoped he would stay for three more years until the end of the Governor Dayton’s term. His leaving is a big blow for MnDOT.

Sorel became MnDOT Commissioner in 2008 after the I-35W Bridge collapse in 2007.  He has been the best MnDOT Commissioner I know.

Sorel has done so much good for MnDOT and the state in the last 4 years – brought the agency out of the shadow of the tragic bridge collapse, improved employee morale, rebuilt trust and transparency. He is a servant leader with humility, trust and confidence. He inspires and empowers others. His trust and confidence in me have inspired me to get out of my comfort zone, to grow and develop new skills. Working on the Commissioner’s Reading Corner for the last three years has been the most rewarding experience for me at MnDOT.

I am sorry about his leaving, and will really miss him.

Best to you and your family, Tom!

For Governor Dayton’s press release, click here.

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.

First day back to work at MnDOT

After 20 days of the Minnesota government shutdown, I was contacted by my supervisor yesterday afternoon (July 20) to go back to work today.

The shutdown was over. The waiting was over. The anxiety was over. So was my homecation. I was happy to go back to work today. I got up early and left for work a few minutes early.

At the entrance of the Transportation building, I was, like every other employee walking in, warmly greeted by our MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel and his management team with a cheerful “Welcome back!” and a handshake or a hug. They had been waiting at different entrances shortly before 7 am when employees started to come in.

Coffee and donuts were available which added some bitter-sweet touch to the event.

Reporters from media were on site to report the event and interview people. Check out this MinnPost article MnDOT workers get a warm ‘Welcome back!’

Our office managers also handed out a hand written note from Commissioner Sorel to every employee. In the note, Sorel extended a personal welcome back and thank-you. He ended the note with “We are MnDOT!!” – a slogan and an initiative his management team created in the last couple of years.

“We are MnDOT”expresses the pride of being a MnDOT employee. “We are MnDOT” videos share stories about who we are, what we do, and what makes MnDOT great.

Later in the morning we had an office meeting to go through the checklist that the management team had worked on in the last couple of days to help employees ease back to work. Our office managers also expressed their personal welcome back and thank you.

Around 8 am, Governor Dayton stopped by at the Transportation Building to greet returning employees. At noon, he sent a thank-you note via email to all state employees.

In the afternoon at 2 pm, Commissioner Sorel and Deputy Commissioner Bernie Arseneau conducted a web cast for all employees. The web cast started with a “We are MnDOT” video. Then both leaders again welcomed everyone back to work. They shared what happened during the shutdown, talked about return to work checklists and resources, and how to resume business.

It sure felt good to be welcomed back at work and to be valued.

Thanks to Commissioner Sorel and his management team, I feel proud to be working for MnDOT and being a part of “We are MnDOT.”

A true leader shines in times of crisis

One fortunate result of the very tragic event of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 was the leadership change at MnDOT.

Tom Sorel became the new MnDOT Commissioner in April 2008, replacing Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau who was removed from her position as Transportation Commissioner by the State Senate in February 2008.

A true leader is often born in times of crisis. A true leader always shines in times of crisis.

Tom Sorel became the new leader at MnDOT during the crisis of the I-35W bridge collapse. Now he shines again during the current government shutdown crisis.

MnDOT has had three commissioners since I started working there in 2000 – Elwyn Tinklenberg, Carol Molnau, and Tom Sorel. I have nothing to say about the first two commissioners, because I rarely saw them and hardly knew them. I was never impressed by anything they said or did.

But the current Commissioner Sorel stood out in times of peace, and especially in times of crisis.

I have been impressed by a lot of things he did within the agency in the last 3 years. He is a servant leader who has humility and character.

The first thing Sorel did as the MnDOT Commissioner that impressed me was to change the org chart. In all the previous MnDOT org charts, Commissioner was at the top of the chart. But he added Minnesota citizens and then the Governor above his name as the Commissioner.

He is a leader who genuinely cares about employees. I was surprised, as everyone else at MnDOT, to receive a personal Happy Birthday message from Commissioner Sorel. Yes,the note was computer generated and he really didn’t write every single note to every employee. Nevertheless, his idea and thought touched people.

Last Friday Commissioner Sorel sent an email to all employees and encouraged all to write letters to him to express their thoughts about the shutdown and recovery to begin the healing process.

He is a leader who treats employees with respect. He always says that all MnDOT employees are leaders and ambassadors for the agency. And he truly encourage employees to be leaders.

He is a leader who connects and communicates well with employees. He joins employees in the annual Twins baseball game. He participates in meetings and events and makes himself visible and approachable. Before the shutdown, he made an effort to do webcasts or send emails regularly to give updates on the contingency planning.

He is a leader who inspires employees to be their best. He is not a micromanager. He trusts people and gives people confidence to do their jobs.

Servant leadership is Commissioner Sorel’s leadership philosophy and style. He has walked the talk and really set an example as a true servant leader.

Even though we are still in the shutdown crisis and there is a lot of personal and organizational challenges and work ahead, I am confident, we will recover quickly as an agency under Commissioner Sorel’s wise leadership.

MnDOT is better because we have a true leader who can lead not only in times of peace, but also in times of crisis.

MnDOT Commissioner’s Reading Corner

My article about MnDOT Commissioner’s Reading Corner (CRC) was published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Special Libraries Association/Minnesota Chapter’s newsletter and posted online.

This article provides some background info about the CRC. Most of my CRC book interview articles have been posted on this blog.

I have been working on this project since 2009. Doing book interviews has become the most interesting part of my job now.

Through my work on CRC and other projects, I got to meet Commissioner Sorel and know him a little bit. All I can say is he is a  great leader – trusting, inspiring and enpowering. He is the best leader I personally know.