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Cabinet secretaries bring leadership training skills to Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration

It’s not unusual to have KLC alumni fulfilling key roles and functions in state government, with involvement crossing party and ideological lines. More than 50 current and former legislators, nearly 70% of whom are Republicans, have attended KLC trainings. But recent appointments to Gov. Laura Kelly’s cabinet, such as Secretary of Labor Delia Garcia, add to the number of individuals with KLC leadership backgrounds working with one another in Topeka in jobs that affect the health and well-being of Kansans in a variety of ways.

Four cabinet secretaries in Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration – Delia Garcia, Laura Howard, Julie Lorenz and David Toland – have been schooled in Kansas Leadership Center ideas, along with deputy secretary of commerce Patty Clark. One key member of Kelly’s staff, Director of Appointments Scott Allegrucci, and two former members, Ashley All and Brittany Crabtree, also have KLC experience.

These officials recently shared with The Journal how the KLC principles they learned continue to influence their behavior in tangible ways as they collaborate with others to enhance government policies, programs, practices and perceptions.

Moving to the Balcony

Delia Garcia, secretary of labor, attended the Kansas Leadership Center’s first-ever leadership program, Context & Competencies, in October 2008 and knows firsthand what it feels like to get up “on the balcony.” In fact, it’s one of the key KLC experiences she’s had that’s helped push her outside of her comfort zone.

A Democratic state legislator representing Wichita from 2005 to 2011, Garcia found herself attending a women’s conference where she learned from Marty Linsky, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and an instrumental figure in developing the core leadership concepts and curriculum at the Kansas Leadership Center.

Linsky provided Garcia, the first Latina to serve in the Kansas Legislature, her initial exposure to adaptive challenges and underscored the importance of getting a broader perspective about an issue to inform one’s leadership actions.

“Marty had us say out loud to the group what we wanted, and I said I wanted to go to D.C. and do public service at the national level,” says Garcia. “Afterward, I had to move myself to the balcony and listen to what other people said about my goal. It was uncomfortable, but there was validation that I should try. It was a real growth experience for all of us to hear not what we wanted to hear but what we needed to hear to make progress.”

Garcia did, in fact, get the opportunity to move to Washington, D.C., where she served in senior authority positions at ReflectUS, the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, and the National Education Association. But the chance to return to her home state to work in public service as the secretary of labor in Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration and be closer to her family is “the biggest dream and a huge deal.”

Labor is nothing new to Garcia, who grew up in Wichita and started working as a hostess and waitress at age 10 in her grandparents’ restaurant, Connie’s Mexico Cafe, a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Kansas that’s been open for 56 years.

“Customer service and hard work are traits that are embedded in me,” says Garcia, who as a representative sometimes waited tables when the cafe was short staffed, engaging with constituents surprised to see her outside of her statehouse capacity.

“Having grown up in a small business in Kansas gives me a unique personal and professional perspective on employers and employees because I’ve been both,” she says.

Garcia became intrigued by labor issues as a teenager after looking up to role models like human and civil rights leader Dolores Huerta. A picture of her with Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez, is among the framed family photos and mementos in her office today. The union is credited with achieving historic gains for farm workers in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Garcia later had the opportunity to meet the revered activist at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 and was “instantly starstruck.” When the two reconnected shortly after Garcia’s election, Garcia enlisted Huerta to be her mentor.

The middle of five daughters, she characterizes herself as a natural mediator and referee, which serves her well in facilitating an open dialogue with businesses and union leaders. Although she grew up in Wichita, her family often traveled to Garden City to visit her father’s relatives, exposing her to rural and urban areas of Kansas.

Listening carefully, as she did during the balcony exercise, has become an essential part of Garcia’s leadership philosophy. She frequently checks with her team members to make sure they have the resources they need.

“It probably stems from my lifelong training in the restaurant, seeing whether anyone needs more chips and salsa at the table, making sure people are satisfied,” she says, laughing. Getting out of her comfort zone, whether it’s running for a state seat or competing for a national public service position or becoming a cabinet secretary, is another dimension of managing self that Garcia embraces and one she wants to bring to her executive team through KLC training.

‘Dreaming about what’s possible again’

Another cabinet secretary drawing on training experiences through KLC is Laura Howard, secretary of the Department for Children and Families (DCF) and the Department for Aging and Disability Services. While working for the state’s social service agency, Howard attended a KLC training with members of the agency’s management team. She subsequently became involved in a Kansas Health Foundation Fellows Program focused on mental health and tobacco usage.

“One of the things about the training that seems so obvious now has to do with diagnosing the situation and distinguishing between technical and adaptive solutions,” she says. “That language was new to me, but now I use it all the time, especially for conversations about next steps in addressing an issue.”

She also gives back the work to others, a management tool she has used in multiple roles over the years.


Referencing a lingering issue at the Department for Aging and Disability Services, Howard says, “At times, I wanted to just say let’s do it this way, but I understood that deliberately handing back the work of resolving it to the other parties would make for a better outcome.

We had so many side conversations about how to intervene skillfully and focus on the greater good, which would influence how we would conduct business in the future.”

Given the emotional complexity inherent in DCF’s work – the agency has made headlines in recent years for troubles related to the child welfare system – and the extensive number of stakeholders vested in its programs and processes to help the state’s most vulnerable children, Howard says being able to intervene skillfully within the agency and with external parties is critical to maintaining strong partnerships.

Sometimes that intervention requires Howard to “get off the dance floor and move to the balcony to look at the bigger picture and see how things intersect.”

Managing self is also something Howard has taken to heart in her various roles.

“I’m an introvert by nature,” she says, “but because of my role people may perceive that I should act in a certain way. I’m constantly assessing how to stay true to myself while also knowing when I need to get out of my comfort zone and engage differently.”

She intends to bring KLC principles to her team as they collaborate on agency initiatives.

“The best goals are ones we all determine and contribute toward,” she says. “We need to infuse KLC concepts into how we lead the agency because we know that things will go better if the people in the meetings can help plan, too.”

That KLC concept of energizing others and engaging unusual voices excites Howard, who notes that the training continues to guide her behavior as well as that of her peers.

“We’re dreaming about what’s possible again. Where do we want to go? What does progress look like? How can we grow?”

More than just roads or bridges

Julie Lorenz, secretary of transportation, participated in her first Kansas Leadership Center session several years ago while serving as the agency’s director of public affairs.

Lorenz discovered several concepts that have continued to influence how she’s handled her professional responsibilities, both in her previous role as senior strategic consultant with

Burns & McDonnell, a construction engineering company, and in her position now.

The fundamental thought that leadership is an act rather than a position has stuck with Lorenz and meshes with her managerial viewpoint, but she places an added layer of responsibility on people such as herself who are fulfilling bona fide authority roles.

While working as a consultant across the country, Lorenz used the KLC concept diagnosing the situation as she collaborated with several entities to create a comprehensive process for enlisting public participation in planning initiatives and priority setting.

In conducting regional transportation assessments and prioritizing projects in sessions spanning six to eight weeks in 2006, 2008 and 2010, Lorenz found the principle of raising the heat especially beneficial in creating better discussions.

“It was so helpful for communities to hear one another advocate for specific local transportation improvements and then develop regional priorities,” she says. “Kansans have great capacity to collaborate when an open and honest environment supported with data is provided.”

Intervening skillfully is another competency Lorenz embraces, particularly determining when to give back the work.

“Employees love to bring problems for you to solve, but giving back the work and asking them for their recommendations enhances their career development and makes a stronger team,” she says.

The approach not only liberates her staff but frees up Lorenz’s focus, too.

She cites recent research gleaned from an NPR broadcast showing that every decision we make during the day has the potential to deplete our energy.

“It makes sense, especially when you think of creative people like (Steve) Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg choosing to wear the same things every day to make the most of their mental energy,” she says. “We all have to figure out the best way to use our energy, so if my employees feel more capable and confident in proposing solutions, then we all benefit.”

The aspect of energizing others and meeting people where they are intellectually and emotionally resonates with Lorenz’s work.

“The transportation business isn’t just about roads and bridges,” she says. “Those physical assets are just the mechanism. What we’re really about is getting people where they want to be safely and conveniently and getting goods and services where they need to be safely and cost-effectively. Sometimes we have to slow down and explain more fully what the constraints might be or the various conditions that need to be considered as we’re working through projects with our partners and the public.”

Lorenz also practices extricating herself from the middle of intense conversations and getting up on the balcony. “Getting really invested in an outcome and being a strong advocate can be good things, but it’s often helpful to take a minute to reflect and calm down and examine your own fears and motivations and even your physical state like whether you’re tired or you’ve had too much caffeine. Routinely remembering to get up on the balcony makes you more mindful and helps you choose the moments when you do need to advocate strongly.”

Putting things back together

Secretary of Commerce David Toland attended his first KLC training 11 years ago as the sole employee of Thrive Allen County, a fledgling quality of life coalition first entrusted with creating health care access and healthier lifestyles and later with enhancing economic development in the area.

A seventh generation Allen County native, Toland had a vested interest in the coalition’s outcomes. He appreciated the opportunity to learn new KLC tools and saw immediately the merit of “having a bench of people in the community all rowing in the same direction” when he took the daunting assignment.

The KLC training notions of intervening skillfully and raising the heat were two concepts that left a lasting impression on him, although he admits he’s never been “a dyed-in-the-wool disciple” of increasing the temperature.

“Sometimes an issue is already piping hot, so I may spend time dialing the temperature down a bit, especially when people’s feelings of loss manifest as anger,” says Toland, who faced plenty of heat in a difficult fight in the Kansas Senate over his confirmation. He was ultimately confirmed to his position on a vote of 23-14 this spring.

Toland has attended additional training sessions through the years, even providing information for a compelling KLC case study on Thrive Allen County, which won the 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize, the first Kansas community to be honored by the organization.

“It’s been interesting to me to see the different interpretations KLC participants have had about my work, particularly the written feedback,” he says, referencing the aspect of knowing the story that others tell about you. “Sometimes they’ve interpreted things in ways I wouldn’t have, including opinions on my motivations and those of the coalition. I’ve benefited from all of it.”

He took Thrive Allen County to 11 employees running the largest coalition of its kind in Kansas before joining Gov. Kelly’s administration in January.

 

Where do leadership ideas and state government connect?

After attending his first KLC training a few years ago, Scott Allegrucci has embedded many of the things he learned from the experience into his work as director of appointments for the governor’s office, in which he supervises the filling of a wide variety of government posts.

“Whatever I’m being asked to do, I think about the role I play as a leader in a systematic, intentional way,” he says. “It’s important for me, especially in the public sector, to separate leadership from power and the notion that leaders have a separate skill set.”

For Allegrucci, being a skilled follower is just as critical to the complicated process of making public policies as having skilled leaders.

“I see myself always as both leader and follower, and I believe that’s how complex systems are intrinsically structured,” he says. “Learning leadership skills isn’t magic but if people won’t collaborate and follow leaders, then those leaders may not get results. It’s an obligation for all of us to know when we need to follow as well as when we need to lead because if we don’t all participate, then that is destructive to the system.”

Ed O’Malley, president and CEO of KLC, hired Patty Clark as vice president of operations when the center was just getting started, enabling her to become part of the team responsible for developing the core competencies, guiding principles, curriculum and coursework. She served in a variety of different roles at the center, including acting president for several months.

“Managing self is first and foremost for me,” she says. “When do you engage? How do you ask good questions? I spend a lot of time really pondering and reflecting on how best to engage before I actually do, which is difficult when your internal system is saying ‘respond, respond, respond.’”

Inherent with any new state administration, there’s work to be done to integrate teams and address business needs, particularly in the Department of Commerce, Clark says, where the focus is on rebuilding relationships with legislators and economic development partners.

“One of the very basic aspects of KLC training is how important relationships are,” she says. “We’re building trusting relationships within the agency whether we’re working with someone on an issue or an appointment or an internal modification to improve how we conduct business.”

Ashley All, former director of communications, has worked in the public policy sector since 2004. In 2014, she was working as a freelance writer and considering rejoining the workforce full time when she attended a KLC poverty summit.

“The summit really struck me,” she says. “I realized that I had a passion for issues like public education and economic equality.”

In her statehouse role, All interacts daily with media and agency representatives who sometimes have opposite perspectives on a particular topic.

“Sometimes we’ll disagree, and that’s okay,” she says. “The goal is to be respectful even if you don’t get what you want so everyone can walk away feeling heard regardless of the outcome. That’s really critical.”

Her penchant for making sure people feel heard and respected complements another KLC focal point for All – energizing others.

“I’ve managed many groups over the course of my career, and it’s hard work,” she says. “It takes a lot of self-awareness as well as awareness of the personalities and communication preferences of your team. When you have to tell someone that something needs to improve, even if you’ve previously shared 10 positive things about that person’s performance, you need to know how to deliver the information in a way that will continue to motivate him or her.”

Brittany Crabtree has worked in communications capacities for four Kansas governors. Her first KLC training was the Art and Practice of Civic Leadership Development, a year-long forum for Kansans in their 20s and 30s to learn about leadership. Through that experience, Crabtree was paired with a leadership coach, inspiring her to eventually become one herself.

“It was the first time someone had been so neutral in my life regarding expectations about my outcomes,” she says. “My coach was always supportive but she asked me really tough questions, including whether I was taking care of myself. That was eye-opening, and it sparked something for me.”

Crabtree has been a KLC coach since 2014, working statewide with individuals employed by corporations, manufacturing companies, nonprofits and government agencies who are interested in honing their leadership skills.

“One of the first things I ask my clients is whether they’re willing to own their part in the mess,” she says. “Are they willing to identify their own weaknesses? This helps us set the agenda.”

As the mother of an infant and as a yoga teacher, managing self is an integral aspect of Crabtree’s approach not only to her career but also her life. But although staying grounded is especially important to her in “the fast-paced world” of state politics, she concedes it’s also one of the hardest to comply with.

“I’ll be forever working on this,” she says, laughing.

Summer Journal Cover

A version of this article appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit  https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.

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