New Commissioners on Leading by Example
Interview by Keith Hovis
After their election last fall, new Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan faced the task of finding commissioners to lead state agencies. With 23 spots to fill, they set out to find dynamic leaders who were skilled in policy and politics.
Three who earned spots in the cabinet are Laura Bishop, Steve Kelley, and Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Bishop was appointed to lead the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Kelley was tapped to head the Department of Commerce, and Kelliher was selected to run the Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
Each has a background in public service and a track record as a leader, and each is closely tied to the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Bishop currently serves as the chair of the School’s Advisory Council, while both Kelley and Kelliher spent time in the classroom. Kelley was a senior fellow in the science, technology, and environmental policy area for 12 years, and Kelliher taught as an affiliate faculty member for nearly 15 years.
Just a few months into the start of the Walz and Flanagan administration, we talked with them about what it takes to lead a state agency, why they were attracted to the work, and how they would advise aspiring state leaders.
What is it like to be a part of a new administration?
Margaret Anderson Kelliher (MAK): It’s a little like working at a start-up company, but one where the company is already growing. So, maybe it’s more like when there’s a turnover of a management team.
Laura Bishop (LB): Yes, a complete management overhaul.
Steve Kelley (SK): With a lot of mutual adjustments.
What prompted you to apply for the role of commissioner?
SK: I was excited about the opportunity to work with Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan. I knew both of them before the campaign, and thought that they would lead an administration that would be fun and productive to work in.
MAK: I had spent eight years at a business nonprofit. I realized how much I really love public service, being able to serve the public every day, and working with our policy makers in the Legislature. Also, for me, I think Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan are inspirational. I wouldn’t probably do this just for anyone.
LB: The optimism that Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan bring to their leadership of the state really drew me in. I wasn’t necessarily looking to make a big change, but I felt drawn to their vision, to the idea of bringing together diverse interests and diverse voices-- the “One Minnesota” approach.
What is your strength as a leader and why is it important in your position?
LB: It’s having a nimbleness and a receptivity to learning. At the MPCA, 70 percent of employees are scientists. I am not a scientist. I need to rely on them, especially if we’re looking at environmental leadership and climate. So, for me, it’s allowing them the ability to analyze that data and bring the information together, and then let me help talk about it to stakeholders.
MAK: My strength is the ability to see things across a system and bring together the different parts of systems. Every day, I expect to listen and learn, and take action when needed. I appreciate hearing other people’s thinking: the planners, the engineers, all those who work in the department. Being open to people at all levels of the organization is really critical, not only the senior management.
SK: My strong suit as a leader is my bias toward innovation. I agree with Margaret and Laura that communication and listening are essential skills. Especially in these mixed political leadership jobs. Those are important. But for my job, I’m always thinking about how I can help the department be more innovative.
When you look back in a few years, what do you hope you will have achieved?
SK: That we would have helped the administration establish some groundbreaking policies and made Minnesota a leader, particularly in addressing climate change and renewable energy areas. In terms of the Commerce Department, I want people to have a sense that they are working in a great place. They work at the department because they are on a mission to protect people. I want them to feel like that there’s nothing in the way of getting of them executing that mission.
MAK: The way people travel and get around is evolving, which presents great opportunities to be innovative and forward thinking. I hope that our work over the next several years will ensure future generations of Minnesotans have access to a modern and reliable transportation system that connects and unites our state –including high-quality roads and bridges, accessible transit, and safe options for walking and biking.
LB: One of the things that I told Governor Walz during the interview process is I wanted to find a way to bring a statewide climate policy together. MPCA employees have been working on climate policy for a long time. They’ve been gathering the data and putting together the policy proposals. They have been waiting for this moment. I see these next four years an opportunity to put together a comprehensive approach for the state of Minnesota. That’s where I see potential for leaving a real legacy.
How are you making sure the best choices are being made for all Minnesotans?
MAK: Having been a legislator was a good training ground for being commissioner, because you realize that every decision is made at a point in time, and more adjustments may need to be made going forward. The law and rules of our world are not static. That means when you’re trying to solve a complex problem that is often adaptive and not just technical, you are going to get it partly right. But you may get it partly wrong, and you will have to come back and do some adjustments.
SK: Another thing is that in order to recognize the interests of different stakeholders, you have to be ready to use multiple processes. On climate and energy policy, we have businesses who have expressed opposition to and business groups who support a new kind of energy system. The challenge is they haven’t necessarily been engaged around the issue before. There is an opportunity to facilitate a dialogue between businesses who are on both sides.
LB: We had great forum in Red Wing where 200 people turned out to discuss the hard topic of nitrates in the water in the southeast area of the state. We ended up having these tabletop discussions – it was me, a reporter, a large farmer and corn grower, a Land Stewardship Project activist, a small farmer, a scientist, and a retired UMN professor from fisheries. We all came together in a really common dialogue about what can we do to improve the water. We cannot shy away from controversy. We have to dive into it, being mindful of how we approach the conversation, that we do so in a constructive way where people are heard and differing viewpoints are taken into consideration.
What is something about your agency people might not know?
MAK: MnDOT is probably one of the best examples of a successful revenue-sharing model in state government. When dedicated transportation dollars are raised, for every dollar raised from something like the gas tax, 40 cents of that goes back to local units of government: counties, cities, townships.
SK: We help protect seniors from financial fraud. And we also help make sure that when you buy a pound of cheese at the deli, that you’re actually getting a pound of cheese.
LB: We have a trove of data. MPCA has a lot of data on every body of water in the state, and that’s pretty cool. You can find out about the water quality in the lake by your cabin or the river you like to fish on, by going on our website. The other piece that goes with that is we have citizen monitors. We train citizens all of over the state to take care of bodies of water, to monitor the water quality in the lakes and streams that they care about.
At the Humphrey School, people have a drive to make change. What drives you?
MAK: It really is a very strong feeling of advocacy. What will I count as success? What will the governor count as success? I think success is about having a sustainable, dependable transportation funding package that can grow into the future and that Minnesotans can depend on.
I have been teaching at the Humphrey School for almost 15 years, and it was really my students who were coming from MnDOT who got me intrigued about coming into this role and back into public service. They are engineers and planners who want to think more systematically and holistically about how things are connected together. And that’s what is exciting about this administration. We’re having collaborative conversations that are going to make a difference in people’s lives.
SK: The thing that has driven me for 30-plus years is the role of good government. One of the great things about being at the Humphrey School and now being back in state service is the opportunity to reinforce the idea that good government actually produces good in the broader society. There are the specific policies you pursue, but just doing government well is valuable in itself.
LB: What drives me is very consistent with the Humphrey School mission: it’s about enhancing and contributing to the common good. I worked 15 years at Best Buy, not because I loved consumer electronics but because I really felt that they had a commitment to enhancing the public good. And, as leader of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Best Buy, it was about how our communities can thrive at the same time as the business thrives. Industry and environmental leadership can coexist. That’s what I looked at with Best Buy, and I hope to bring that same view to the partners we work with at the MPCA.
What advice would you give to students aspiring to leadership roles like yours?
SK: Be persistent, get involved, and study finances and statistics.
MAK: I would add, to say yes to opportunities even when you’re a little bit nervous about saying yes. You need to trust yourself, but you need to take risks. You need to have both relationships and knowledge base, to get out there and explore the world and have a lot of connections to people.
LB: Be curious. Always want to learn. You should be approaching any job as a learning experience. It’s OK to be a generalist because with that you can go into so many things. I did not study environmental policy, but I am leading an environmental agency. And that grew out of the experience I gained in my career and as my interests grew. Knowing how to problem solve and take on tough issues is important for any type of career in policy making.
This piece was originally published in Humphrey magazine.