By Tim Hayes
“The Secretary is coming. The Secretary is coming!”
It marked the first time I ever saw grown men panic in a professional setting.
My first foray into public relations, after three years working as a newsroom journalist fresh out of college, occurred with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, or PennDOT in the state vernacular. PennDOT, for as long as I could remember and for decades before that, had remained atop the listing of state agencies most reviled across our beloved Commonwealth.
Accepting a job – a significant element of which included dealing with irate media, taxpayers, and elected officials – certainly afforded me with an avalanche of immediate trial-by-fire experience in promoting and defending an organization through effective messaging and strategic communications. One would be hard-pressed to find a first PR job more daunting than as a spokesperson for a PennDOT district located squarely in the mountainous snow belt. Hair, pants, shoes, soul – set on fire daily. Or so it seemed.
The fact that such a job existed at all, however, could be attributed to the Secretary of Transportation, a former civil engineering professor from Penn State who challenged the governor to do better with the state’s transportation system of roads, airports, and waterway traffic. The governor took him up on it, in effect giving him free reign to either put up or shut up, so the Secretary got to work. Greater accountability across the board, no more political patronage, careful budgeting, establishing clear measures of success, and creating a system of PR representatives to keep travelers informed at all times.
About two weeks after I had joined the district office, my boss sent me to the state capital to meet the PR staff at the central office. Having been introduced to the press secretary and others on the headquarters team, I was shepherded to another office on the top floor of the PennDOT building, where I met a woman with what struck me as a rather vague title. “Special Advisor” or something similarly gauzy and ill-defined.
Her actual duty soon became clear, however, when she picked up her phone, asked “Is now a good time?”, smiled at me and said, “Come on.” She escorted me down a long hallway, knocked on the door, got the go-ahead to open it, and waved me in – and who should be sitting at an enormous desk, with large windows behind, setting him in silhouette?
He stood up, all six-foot-whatever of him, came from around the desk, shook my hand, and asked me to have a seat at a side table. A deep, resonant, authoritative voice issuing from his throat, he cut quite the imposing figure. Plus, he had the power to send guys like me packing whenever he felt the need.
But for all of that, what I recall from that initial introduction was a person genuinely interested in making a new team member feel welcome and valued. And while I only worked for the Department about two years, that sense of mutual respect and the incredible blending of pride in the work, high expectations, and a little bit of fun carried through any interactions I had with the Secretary.
In just one example, PennDOT each year conducts a community service day where volunteers help pick up litter along state roadways. I had done my best to inject more excitement into our district’s participation levels, which had been moribund, putting it mildly. The Secretary made a point to visit our district on that Saturday, and it fell to me to pick him up at the small regional airport in my state-issued Chrysler K-Car.
As we drove northward to join a cluster of adults and kids performing their litter pickup, I made sure I adhered to the posted speed limits. He leaned over and said, “Tim, you know I’m the Secretary of Transportation, right?” “Yes, sir.” “And you are transporting me, right?” “Yes, sir.” “Well, then, I guess there’s only one question left.” “What’s that, sir?”
“Can this crate go any faster?”
It could, and it did. And about a week later, I received a letter from the Secretary stating his appreciation for my work on the community service project, and the fact that what our district did would serve as the model for all other districts moving forward. That letter got framed and sat on top of the living room TV for months in my house.
In the many years since, I’ve had either the pleasure or the pain of working with many CEOs and other top executives. I’ve never told any of them this (until now, I guess), but I would silently gauge their tone, their demeanor, their approach to professional respect, and their ability to relax and enjoy their interactions, with that of the Secretary of PennDOT. Fortunately for me, nearly all have measured up pretty well against that sterling standard.
So when the engineers and other professionals in our district office got the word that “The Secretary is coming!” – they let it shake them, make them nervous and anxious. But I just smiled.
Yeah, the Secretary – my friend, my role model, my idea and ideal of a great leader – was coming.
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes