Share Your Passion

Recently MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel invited employees to participate in “We are MnDOT:  Share Your Passion,” a forum for employees to share their interests with each other, by submitting a 125-word description and a photo of their passion. The profiles are then posted on the walls of each floor where employees work.

I thought it was a wonderful idea. Sharing your passion will help employees learn a little bit more about each other, get better connected and more engaged with each other, therefore help build stronger community and relationships within the department.

This is what I came up with for my passion profile. I wrote more, but had to cut down to 125 words:

Reading, learning, writing and blogging are my #1 passion. I write about whatever comes to my mind, hence my Woodbury Bulletin Column “On My Mind” which is an Areavoices blog now.

My #2 passion is healthy and green living. I love gardening and walking.

As a citizen of the world (grew up in China, went to graduate school in Germany, and living in US since 1991), I travel a lot. In summer 2012, I visited New York, Princeton, Philadelphia, Chicago; Germany, Hungary, Italy, France and UK.

I love taking pictures, won Woodbury Photo Contest twice.

I love volunteering and getting involved in community, graduated from the 1st class of Woodbury Citizens Academy, and was a founding member of Minnesota Jinglun Chinese School.

Never stop learning!

What is your passion? Share it with others!

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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.”

“Heroes of MnDOT” honored at the State Capitol

Today MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton honored seven individuals, MnDOT’s Critical Incident Stress Management team and all 1,800 MnDOT Snow Fighters at the award ceremony of “Heroes of MnDOT,” held at the State Capitol Rotunda at 10 AM.

“The purpose of this inaugural program is to acknowledge employees who acted courageously or provided meritorious service in response to extraordinary or dangerous circumstances. I believe it is important to have such a program to recognize when our employees carry out these extraordinary acts and pause to honor their fortitude and commitment.”

2011 Heroes of Mn/DOT include:

Donald MachacekFor his selfless and quick action that saved the lives of a mother and her two children in July of 2010.

Thomas Shields – For his selfless and quick action that saved the life of an infant in December of 2006.

Julie TodoraFor her quick response that saved the life of a heart attack victim in December of 2010.

Judy Jacobs – For her extraordinary support of the City of Wadena following the June 2010 tornado.

Kristine Hernandez and Jessica WiensFor their extraordinary support of Wabasha County during the September 2010 flood relief effort.

Jolyn CrumFor her selfless and quick action that saved the life of a Mn/DOT co-worker in January of 2011.

Critical Incident Stress Management Team(DeLorah Curry, Desiree Doud, Garland Jackson , Tony Kilpela, Jason Penaz, Brad Powers, Bob Wryk, Larry Quade) – For their extraordinary support of MnDOT employees and staff during critical incidents.

Snow FightersFor their extraordinary service during the snow and ice season of 2010-2011 and for keeping the citizens of Minnesota safe.

Since Sorel became the MnDOT Commissioner in April 2008, he has proved himself as a great leader. In my eyes, he is small in stature, yet giant in character, wisdom and leadership.

Sorel has done great work at MnDOT to improve morale, team work, commitment, trust and transparency. He advocated continuously for servant leadership.

When Mark Dayton became the new governor of Minnesota, Tom Sorel was the first commissioner to be reappointed in the new administration. MnDOT employees were happy to keep him as their commissioner.

“Heroes of MnDOT” is another program Sorel initiated to show his recognition and appreciation for employees who go above and beyond their duties.

 “It always will be my honor to pay them tribute,” Sorel said.

Minnesota transportation funding

A reader raised a question in responding to yesterday’s post Let your voice be heard – Minnesota GO: “How can MN build infrastructure with a $5 billion deficit?”

I think Minnesota, or  the US in general, cannot afford not to build a better infrastructure. Even public transportation in China is much more advanced than in the US. Here is a post I wrote on this topic after my trip to China last summer.

Yes, Minnesota has an estimated $5.03 billion two-year budget deficit. But Mn/DOT’s funding comes mostly from designated sources, almost half of its funding comes from the fuel tax. Approximately 80 percent of Mn/DOT funds are appropriated by the legislature and 20 percent is statutorily appropriated.

The following charts show where Minnesota’s transportation funding comes from and where it goes (for fiscal Year 2010)

Sources of Minnesota state transportation funds

Uses of Minnesota state transportation funds

Mn/DOT is a multi-modal agency. Its activities include transit; aeronautics; freight and commercial vehicles; construction; maintenance; and operation of 12,000 miles of state highways. Approximately 30 percent of Mn/DOT’s appropriations are state aid to local governments for road and bridge projects and other activities.

*Source of information: Mn/DOT Funding and Finances

The biggest speech of my life

If you ask my kids or anyone in my family whether I am funny and have a sense of humor, they will for sure say: “No.” They can’t picture me as being funny and humorous. And that’s true.

But somehow, some people at work think differently of me. They think I can entertain people and make people laugh. That’s why I was invited to speak at the farewell party for MnDOT Deputy Commissioner Khani Sahebjam today. He was roasted by several high profile speakers from the federal, state and city governments, from the state legislature and consulting firm. 

Being invited by the MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel to speak at the event was an honor for me. I was the only female on the panel and I am no body, i.e. not someone with an important title, but I sat among the others who all have impressive titles. It was truly an honor. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak. I made the biggest speech of my life in front of 100-200 people.

Don Theisen, Washington County Public Works Director and County Engineer was among the guest speakers. I didn’t know him at all, but I took the opportunity to thank him for the work his Dept. does. Thanks partly to the nice work the Washington County and Woodbury Public Works Departments do, Woodbury made it into several Best Places to Live lists in the last few years.

Woodury does feel like a better place to live, especially after a snow day.

After we had the biggest snow storm since 1991 on December 10-11, 2010, I was able to dig my car out of my garage and drive from Woodbury to work in St. Paul on Monday, but my coworkers who live in St. Paul were not so fortunate. They couldn’t go to work in St Paul, because their streets were not plowed for a couple of days.

I enjoyed the public speaking, something I just discovered recently. It was fun to make people laugh.

Above and Beyond Award

Today the Mn/DOT Health & Wellness Committee members received the “Above and Beyond” Award presented by Commissioner Tom Sorel.

Among all the Minnesota State agencies, Mn/DOT has the most active Health & Wellness Committee that offers a wide varieties of programs to employees, such as yoga, Tai Chi, relaxation, fitness boot camp, weight watchers, the biggest losers, brown bag learning series, annual walking and running events, etc. The work is done by volunteer employees, with no financial support from the agency. 

Thanks to the creative and hard work by the committee members, most Mn/DOT H&W programs are offered free to Mn/DOT and other state employees. Some are paid by participants themselves. Mn/DOT also has a fitness center that is solely supported by membership fees.   

Mn/DOT is leading the way in promoting healthy living among state employees. Some other state agencies look up to Mn/DOT for inspiration and support.

I have enjoyed working on several H&W projects – brown bag learning sessions, Minnesota State Capitol Run@Work Day 5K, etc. Most recently we organized our first Cafe Mn/DOT. We invited employees to show their talents. It was such a fun and community-building event. People loved it.

I am glad to be part of the Mn/DOT H&W Committee.  Today we were all very thankful that our Commissioner came to present the recognition award to us, along with the Human Resources Director Eric Davis and  Employee & Corporate ServicesDivision Director Pam Tschida.  

This is the first time that the H&W Committee members were recognized with the Above and Beyond Award. It really shows Sorel’s commitment and support for making Mn/DOT a workplace of choice.

Sorel has done a great job at Mn/DOT in the last two year. We are happy that he will stay for the next few years under the new governor Mark Dayton.

Highlight of the day

I was just checking my Facebook account in the evening and saw the following question posted by tinybuddha:

“Share your joy! What’s been the highlight of your day?”

In the comment line I wrote: “Spoke in front of a crowd and discovered that I have some sense of humor and can make people laugh.”

Today I did something out of ordinary, or out of my comfort zone, and in the process I discovered something new about myself.

I am an introvert. I grew up in a family where no one is very talkative.

My father is the best handyman I know in the world, but he is not a man of word. He is quiet and doesn’t talk much.

My mother is a math teacher at school. So she talks more than my father. But I don’t remember her being very talkative either.

My brother and I are more like my father. We are all introverts and quiet.     

None of us had any sense of humor. There were not much joking and laughter at home.

Since coming to the U.S. almost 20 years ago, I think I have changed a little. Though still an introvert at heart, I have picked up some extrovert traits. I am not as shy and quiet as I used to be. I feel comfortable talking to people, even strangers.   

But being humorous? Not me. Public speaking? Not me.

I am so much more comfortable with written words than spoken words.

Today we had a Library Grand Reopening Celebration at Mn/DOT Library where I work (More info is available in the Dec. 8, 2010 issue of Mn/DOT Newsline). We had invited guest speakers including 

  • Tom Sorel, MnDOT Commissioner
  • Bernie Arseneau, Division Director
  • Nick Thompson, Office Director
  • Linda Taylor, Research Services Director
  • Sheila Hatchell, Library Director

In the last few weeks and months the library staff had worked hard on the remodeling project and in preparation for this event.

Last night as I was laying in bed feeling excited about this big day ahead, I wondered what it would be like to speak in front of a crowd, standing next to the big guns in the organization. Would I have the courage to do it? 

The more I thought about it, the more I felt like that I could do it. At least I could give it a try.

So this morning before the event began, I talked to my supervisor Sheila and volunteered to present the prize drawing at the end of the formal speeches, which I did.

It turned out that I did a great job, to my surprise and probably everyone’s surprise. I brought people to laugh a lot.

Afterwards I got many positive comments, and a nice big hug from our great commissioner for a job well done.

My heart was filled with joy, because I did something I had never done before that brought joy and laughter to others.

This was the highlight of my day.  It could be the highlight of the week or month.


MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel at Library Grand Reopening Celebration. Dec. 15, 2010

Tom Sorel stays as MnDOT Commissioner

Today Governor-elect Mark Dayton announced that Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel will continue his post under his new administration.

This was not a surprise to me. I heard rumors before the official announcement that Sorel would stay. That’s what I hoped and expected.

As the MnDOT Commissioner since 2008, Sorel is well respected and liked by MnDOT employees and people in the transportation community.

Like some other MnDOT employees, I also sent my comment of support for Sorel to Mark Dayton via his website a couple of weeks ago.  

I was not surprised that Sorel was Dayton’s first appointment as governor-elect. I guess it was an easy decision. With strong support from inside and outside of the organization, from both parties, from public and private sectors, and from unions, Sorel was obviously the best choice.

When the announcement was made, I heard cheering from some co-workers.

Tom Sorel lives with his wife and son in Woodbury.

The following are two interviews I did with Sorel.

Interview with Mn/DOT Commissioner Tom Sorel (Feburary 2010)

Meet the new MnDOT commish (June 2008)

Nuts! – book interview

I recently interviewed Bernie Arseneau, Mn/DOT Division Director for Policy, Safety and Strategic Initiatives. Berine is my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss :-)

We talked about the 7th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg 


Tang: Why did you pick this book? 

Arseneau: I like the idea of having fun at work. Being professional does not mean being serious all the time. Professionalism does not exclude fun, humor and celebration in the workplace. “Nuts!” resonates with me for what I value and appreciate.    

Tang: How did you like the book? 

Arseneau: The first six or so chapters were hard to stay interested in. They are about the history and background of Southwest Airlines. But then starting with chapter seven it gets much more interesting. I really like the last few chapters. They are more of the climax of the book.   

Tang:  What are the last few chapters about that you really like? 

Arseneau:  In chapter 20, “Employees come first,” Southwest’s mission statement is presented. It is not the typical mission statement you find in many organizations. 

The first part is addressed to customers: “The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.” 

The second part addresses the employees: “We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer. 

The point is that great service begins at home. Putting employees first is really important. When we take good care of our employees, they take good care of our customers. 

Chapter 21 “Leaders leading leaders” talks about leadership. 

Leadership is not a one way communication where one leads and the others follow. Leadership is two way communication. Leaders collaborate. At Southwest, leadership is practiced through collaborative relationships. In a collaborative relationship, the roles of leader and collaborator are interchangeable. They are partners in solution. Leadership is something all employees do together. 

 Tang:  What are some other ideas or concepts from the book that stood out for you? 

Arseneau:  Chapter 18 “Unconventional advertising” mentions three things that Southwest Airlines strives to do in its advertising: aiming to intrigue the audience, to entertain and to persuade. Southwest communicates its mission in a fun, zany, yet highly effective way. It told its story to the public and captured the attention and hearts of many. The Southwest story shows that you can have humor and fun at work. It not only increases productivity but also builds a great spirit. 

The chapter also talks about making every employee a living advertisement. I really like that. I like to see every person at Mn/DOT as an ambassador and leader for Mn/DOT.

Tang: The author talks about the Southwest Spirit. It’s the spirit of liberty and freedom that encourage employees to use their imagination, express their individuality, and exercise leadership. It’s the spirit that engages the minds, hearts and souls of the Southwest employees to do the right thing. It’s the spirit that ignites the burning desire in every employee to excel. Do we have a Mn/DOT Spirit? 

Arseneau: Within Mn/DOT, we have groups of people in functional areas of work, such as maintenance or safety, who work together with incredible dedication and a great spirit. But sometimes it seems that we are not as strongly linked together as a complete organization. It would be great to grow our organizational spirit into a robust, overarching Mn/DOT spirit, across all Mn/DOT functional areas, like the spirit that is so evident at Southwest Airlines. 

Tang: How can we foster such a spirit? 

Arseneau: First we need to help employees understand that no matter what you do, where you work and what position you hold in the organization, we all work for a common purpose. Each brings value to the organization. Each can make a big difference. We are one family striving to be the global leader in delivering a safe and efficient transportation system for the public. We need to go beyond our functional areas and work together more closely throughout the organization. 

Then, we need to do a better job communicating internally. Like Commissioner Sorel always says, tell our stories, acknowledge our successes, and celebrate our achievements. We should publish stories of extraordinary service in the newsletter, focus on the positives as learning opportunities more than the negatives.      

Not only we should engage all employees to be leaders, we also need to engage their hearts and minds. You can’t foster a spirit without people’s heart and mind engaged and without their being passionate about what they do. 

When we put employees first, practice the collaborative approach of servant leadership, the spirit will grow. 

Tang: The current Mn/DOT leadership team has been doing a better job in terms of creating opportunities to make Mn/DOT a fun workplace to work. This has definitely raised moral and team spirit. I have heard very positive feedback from fellow employees. What can you do better as a leader?  

Arseneau: One way is to reach out and connect with employees more regularly and nontraditionally. Our calendars are filled with meeting appointments. By learning to delegate, time can be opened up so that employees can be engaged  and empowered to be more independent and to be decision makers. Our job is to help people understand their purposes and roles in the organization and then empower them and support them to do their job. By having trust and confidence in people, they will rise to the expectations. 

Tang:  Can you share some insight you gained from reading the book? 

Arseneau:  An old saying is that, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” I once learned that a good leader’s job is not to lead the horse to water or to make him drink, a good leader’s job is to make the horse thirsty so that he will go to water and drink by himself. Each person needs to take ownership of his own work and life. The desire has to come from within the individual, to drink, to thrive and excel. 

We need to allow, encourage and empower employees to think creatively and risk intelligently, so they can come up with innovative ideas and solutions, be the leaders and decision-makers in whatever they do. 

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

Arseneau: “Make rules, systems, and procedures your servants, not your masters.” (p. 95)

 “Humor and creativity go hand in hand – ‘HA HA leads to the AHA!” (p.212)

“Love chooses service over self-interest. Love uses power to serve and wealth to expand its capacity to serve.” (p. 234)

”The customer is not always right. Employees, not customers, come first.” (p. 268)

“True happiness is found in serving a cause that we believe has lasting significance.” (p. 281)

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

Arseneau: Comparing to my wife who can go through a couple of books a week, I am a light reader. Outside of work, I like to read mysteries, books that are light and action packed for a mental getaway. One of my favorite authors is John Sanford who wrote the Prey Series.

Leadership principle – book interview

I recently interviewed Mike Barnes, Mn/DOT Division Director for Engineering Services. We talked about the sixth book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, The world’s most powerful leadership principle : how to become a servant leader by James C. Hunter.



Tang: Why did you pick this book?

Barnes: After I heard a talk by Commissioner Sorel on servant leadership, I read the first book by James Hunter titled “The Servant” and really liked it. It puts servant leadership into more of a story. I also liked Hunter’s writing style. So I picked his second book to learn the practical side of servant leadership principles.

Tang: What did you like about the book?

Barnes: The book is practical and helpful in both format and contents.

The first half of the book is about WHAT good leadership looks like, what servant leadership is, what the principles are. The second half of the book is about HOW to implement what you learned, the steps necessary to becoming an effective servant leader. It’s easy to read and understand.

The principles taught in the book relate to our everyday life and are applicable to everyone whether you are someone in a leadership role, or a parent, teacher, coach, etc.

Tang: What are the principles of leadership that Hunter talks about in the book?

Barnes: Hunter talks about the following eight principles of leadership: patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, honest and commitment. He also does a great job comparing leadership and the action part of love.

Tang:  What are some ideas or concepts from the book that stood out for you?

Barnes:  Leadership is not management. You do not manage people. You manage things, and you lead people.

Leadership, love, and character are all about doing the right thing.

Leadership is influence. The foundation of leadership is not power, but authority and influence. They are built upon relationships, love, service and sacrifice.

One cannot love people without serving and sacrificing for them. When we serve and sacrifice for others, we build authority (influence), and when we build authority with people, when we can influence and inspire people to action, we become leaders.

The whole book and the idea of servant leadership can be boiled down to this: To lead is to serve.

Tang: What new things did you learn from reading this book?

Barnes:  I have read many different leadership books. What I found refreshing and interesting is that Hunter compares love and leadership, character and leadership and brings them all together. They are about the same thing – doing the right thing for others and for the common good.

Love is not just a feeling, more importantly, love is an action word. Love is a state not of the feelings, but of the will. It is the will, the choice, the willingness of a person to be attentive to the legitimate needs, best interests, and welfare of another regardless of how he happens to feel. That’s what love is really about. I hadn’t thought of love in this way as Hunter talks about in the book.

Tang: The idea of servant leadership has its origin in Christianity. In this book, Hunter references to Bible and Jesus as the great leader a few times. What would you say to people who have a different faith or are atheists and therefore might be put off by the religious tone in the book.

Barnes: I have read other books on servant leadership that have a much stronger religious overtone than this book. Yes, this book refers to Bible and Jesus a few times when it talks about love and serving others. But the book is about leadership and is targeted for the secular readership. The ideas and principles in the book are fundamental laws that are universal and unchanging. They apply to everyone regardless of your backgrounds and ideology. Everyone can benefit from the book.

Tang: The author talks about examples of great leaders who are well known around the world, such as Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. Do you know someone in your own life who is a true leader?

Barnes: I think my grandmother exemplified the servant leadership principles. She loved our big family, church and community by serving and sacrificing. She has influenced and inspired me with her character and authority.

Also Dan Dorgan, Mn/DOT’s bridge engineer for many years and recently retired, is an excellent example of servant leader and set the example to follow.

Tang: Motivation is an important component of leadership. To influence and inspire people to action and greatness, you need to know how to motivate them. What can you as a leader do or what can Mn/DOT do to truly motivate employees?

Barnes: As Hunter says, true motivation is about lighting a fire within people, and moving them to action because they want to act. We need to understand the deeper needs that human beings all share – the need to be appreciated, recognized, and respected. We should take time to say thanks more often and find more ways to say thanks. People appreciate personal thanks, written thanks, public praise and promotion for good performance. That’s what we should do better.

Tang: Often times people go to leadership training, learn some great ideas, feel energized by the new knowledge. But afterwards, not much changes. As Hunter says, nobody becomes a better leader by reading a book or attending a class. We become leaders by applying our learning, knowledge, feedback and experience to our everyday lives. To become a better leader, one must be willing and motivated to change and grow. How do you plan to take what you learned to the next level?

Barnes:  I totally agree, head knowledge without application isn’t worth much. We can’t change overnight, but we can take small steps one at a time and make incremental change. I have sat down and created an action plan for myself. I need to work on myself every day. Building up character is a work in progress. We can never stop learning, change and grow if we want to be leaders.

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

Barnes: “Leadership development and character development are one.” (p.23)

“Managers do things right while leaders do the right thing.” (p. 31)

”Management is what we do. Leadership is who we are.” (p. 32)

“To lead is to serve.” (p. 73)

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

Barnes: I read a lot while in military and in college. Basically I read two types of books. One is the technical and professional type of books. The other type is management/leadership and personal development related.

I have been reading more books since Commissioner Sorel came to Mn/DOT to try to stay ahead.

In terms of favorite books and authors, I don’t really have any. But I would say, Home Depot’s Home Improvement Series are my favorite how-to-do books as I enjoy working on fixing things around the house.