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Addressing a Major Organizational Change Through Quality Leadership

Above: The Monroe Building, a state office tower in Richmond, Virginia. Design and Construction Offices were on the 11th floor.

Determining a Leadership Decision to Address a Major Change in Program

Article by A170 Tom Rozman

It was the mid 1990s.  The Department of Conservation and Recreation was in the early stages of administering and executing a $92M general obligation bond resulting from an Act of the Assembly the previous year.  The agency of some 450 permanent and year round employees expanded to some 1,000 employees seasonally from Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September.  The agency oversaw vast real property holdings managed by two of its divisions, Natural Heritage and State Parks, of over 100,000 acres across the state of Virginia.  This included infrastructure of several hundred buildings, and hundreds of miles of roads, trails, impoundments and impoundment shoreline.  The bond in its some 300 plus project lines would be acquiring additional acreage, building additional roads, facilities and buildings, and upgrading or repairing existing facilities.

The agency would be executing the bond project lines along with a $2.5M Maintenance Reserve Program, a several hundred thousand dollar per year Recreation Access Program and several other programs.  Overall budgets ranged into the $100M per year range in current dollars.

Prior to passage of the bond the Design and Construction Office was a 12-14 employee office that administered roughly  $3M in design and annual project work.  It did not at the time oversee the real property function across the agency, that function being divided in two offices, one at department level and one in the Division of State Parks.

The office, though a departmental asset that provided support to all divisions of the agency as necessary, was positioned in the Division of State Parks.  Notably, some of the project lines for the Bond were targeted on the Division of Natural Heritage and other divisions although the majority of project lines were Parks Division lines.

The act in the state assembly proceeded through the legislative process and although there was apparently sufficient popular support its passage was not an assured result.  The Agency parks division and Design and Construction office had made some preliminary moves toward preparing the Design and Construction Office for the almost 31 fold increase in its business if the bond act passed, many project lines being multi-year projects. But nothing concrete had been done.

Interestingly, just before the bond worked its way through the legislature, a situation developed that caused the deputy director of the Design and Construction Office, a grade 15 engineer, to resign.  The resignation coincided with a new state administration’s initiative to reduce state government costs with one area targeted being the reduction of state personnel.  The Design and Construction Office as part of the agency’s contribution to the new state administration’s initiative gave up the deputy director position, already by law funded through the state fiscal year.  In the event this would prove problematic on bond approval as this position functioned as the operations officer of Design and Construction.

The bond was enacted into law and activated.  The measures taken to this point to reorganize Design and Construction and enhance its project management staff capabilities had not, for understandable reasons within the state system, advanced sufficiently to provide a rapid efficient escalation of operations in the execution of the bond.

Realistically, in the best of circumstances and given the state system’s capabilities, some amount of time would be necessary on the bond becoming law to grow a Design and Construction organization sufficient and capable of digesting such a huge increase in business…and the option of hiring a contracted capability did enter the mix for political and other reasons assuming the contract office expertise existed to bid the contracts and administer them.

However, the option chosen was to grow capability in the Design and construction organization hiring the additional staff.  Ultimately, this effort would bring over 35 employees on payroll over a several years period.   State advertising and hiring practices had a hampering effect.  As well, by the “real” timeliness that developed for the standing up of the needed organization, legislative expectations as the ramp up occurred were not being met.  The members of the legislature, particularly in localities targeted to benefit from acquisitions or construction, chafed at any delays .

The legislature had formed an oversight committee and it became apparent in the requirement for weekly reporting on progress regarding the project lines that many legislators were expecting much more rapid realization of project progress for projects in their areas.  “Dealing with inertial forces” was proving a less than satisfactory explanation to these overseers.

To further the challenges the agency faced in getting up to speed on obligating funds and on progress with project lines, the director of the Design and Construction office, a practising engineer (PE) previously held in good stead, was becoming a lightening rod.   Under the circumstances the less then timely desired progress on bond projects was rapidly translating into an insinuation of less than necessary ability to perform at this level of programmatic.

The building pressure caused agency leadership to make a decision to form an internal panel to conduct an impartial review of Design and Construction operations concerning the bond. The need for a panel member with previous engineering and programmatic experience from within agency resources, but not a member of Design and Construction, presented a problem.  As it happened, one of the three State Park Region managers, a year into the position and previously the State Parks training officer for a year, was a retired Army lieutenant colonel with an engineering undergraduate degree and MBA who had done programmatic work in the Army.

Though the region manager had become aware that difficulties were developing in bond project management, he had no idea a review panel was being considered.  On an afternoon he received the surprise notice he had been selected by senior leadership to serve on the panel .

This began a several week review of all Design and Construction operations and leadership to include the growing base of project data.  The region manager as a panel member found himself deeply engaged to include day long excursions to the Design and Construction offices, a different building than his office location, to pour through project records and data and interview Design and Construction staff.

The panel was operating with a specified timeline to report to senior agency leadership.  Essential findings and upshot of the report determined the following with allied recommendations to agency leadership.

  • Current leadership within Design and Construction did have challenges in orchestrating and reporting on project progress. The leadership management structure needed reorganization and focus…an operations capability and use of some form of more focused and regular in-process reviews would be necessary to meet heightened legislative expectations.  Generally, the office was attempting to conform to Department of General Services project requirement and guidelines, the applicable policy, but the office internal systems seemed unable to overcome any inertial forces within this external system.
  • A more expedited system of project management staff accession and training was necessary with focused internal oversight to keep projects on their timelines.
  • An enhanced , more timely and accurate system of project reporting was necessary.
  • Design and Construction was a departmental asset serving more than one division. Its current positioning put a layer of leadership between it and the level of leadership it should be reporting to.
  • Design and construction, similar to organizations and agencies of like configuration, should include the agency’s real property functions and management.

There were other findings and recommendations.  The above however formed a major part of the following actions taken by agency leadership.

The process of building the necessary personnel base for the expanded Design and Construction Office received focus and priority within the agency’s Human Resources office to include accession of a recently retired navy Commander, a PE who obtained his initial degree from the Naval Academy, and then an engineering degree. He had served in the Navy as a civil engineer and had significant project management experience  with construction projects.

The agency’s two other real property offices were consolidated and assigned to the Design and Construction Office.  This proved a major improvement in the real property acquisition bond project lines.  It enhanced clarity, accountability, management, and reporting.  It simplified lines of communication within the agency.

Though the director appeared a competent engineer, he moved on to other opportunities and a new director was engaged from private sector who proved able to negotiate the requirements of timely project management and ever more hyper sensitive legislative oversight component with weekly project reporting becoming required.

As a result of a parallel initiative of the new administration at state level to flatten organizational leadership and make leadership more responsive to the public, the Design and Construction initiatives would dove-tail with this state level objective  in several ways.  The “deputy” and “assistant” director or commissioner positions in agencies would be eliminated.  As well, specific to the agency, in the case of the Parks Division the very large coast, piedmont and mountain regions, Parks regions 1, 2 and 3 whose managers were collocated at the Richmond headquarters, would be reorganized into six smaller districts. The district managers would be located in their park districts typically on the largest park.

These parallel initiatives affected the agency internal Design and Construction initiative directly.  The previous loss of the deputy director position for Design and Construction conflicted with the findings of the review panel that recommended a stronger operations capability in support of the director.

The reorganization of the three regions was an unknown at the time by the region manager assigned to the review panel.  The region manager was approached shortly after the date for reorganization of the regions was announced by the Director of State Parks.

The State Parks Division Director proposed three offers for following assignment of the Region 2 Manager.  After confirming with the region manger his engineering and programmatic background and experience, the parks director offered the manager a parks district manager position, an operations position in Design and Construction and a third option.  The manager opted for design and construction where he believed he could make a greater contribution given the circumstances.  On the deactivation of the regions and forming of the park districts the Region 2 Manager, after 2 ½ years as the region manager, became the Capital Outlay Operations Manager for the Design and Construction Office of the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The measures and decisions taken by senior agency leadership using the device of the panel to objectively review the then developing situation, brought that situation into clearer focus in a short period of time.  The review provided an objective as possible basis for decision.  The leadership then made the necessary decision and initiated action.

The ultimate result was that the Design and Construction Office and its operations were brought into performance tolerance relatively quickly.  Given the inertial forces at work with the state systems on several levels, the direction of these decisions worked well and brought the bond programmatic into focus and met the standard of performance and review desired.  Legislative overwatch was increasingly satisfied with the results.

The decision also took advantage of circumstances that presented in a smart and beneficial way using resources that had emerged unplanned but could be applied effectively to need.   The re-assignment of the Region 2 Manager was an example.  Overall, the agency senior leadership acted effectively and decisively in its decision process and follow-through.  It was an example of effective and engaged executive leadership.

Note: In a number of ways military experience within the design and construction Office leadership also contributed to the reorganized office’s greater effectiveness.  In addition to the retired Navy commander PE, the re-assigned Region 2 Manager was a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the new Design and Construction director was a previous Army National Guard cavalryman.  Additional members of the Design and Construction staff were also veterans.  The leadership abilities and project task skill competencies developed through military training and service  greatly assisted individual and collective effectiveness in conducting Design and Construction’s execution of its almost $100M program.

2 Comments

  • Lionel Boxer

    March 24, 2020 at 6:04 pm

    Leadership I have learned in my entire 40+ military career – Army Cadet Leader 1973, Army Reserve Jr Leader 1974-5, RMC, ROTP, army reserve promotion courses – have been very helpful throughout my career in consulting. I am still serving in the Australian army reserve, still learning about leadership, and still applying leadership to helping people through adopting new ways.

  • Tom Rozman

    March 25, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Lionel, very well said…the Army gave us skills that continue to apply and effective servant leadership is a life long proposition. I learn something new every day. FYI, I compliment you on the hospitable character of your Australian Army colleagues. On my several interfaces with serving and retired officers and soldiers during a recent visit to Australia I was welcomed and very well treated. They were all ambassadors for your service and country.