California State Treasurer
What early experiences had the biggest impact on you?
A: My first job as a child was selling the Penny Saver. Little did I know that that I was trying to sell subscriptions to some people who already received the Penny Saver for free. I would get these puzzled looks. Finally I was asked, "Do you know that we actually receive this for free in the mail?" So one of the things I learned was to understand the value of the product that you're selling and understand the benefits to the recipient who would be the subscriber or the purchaser of that product. One of the things that you need to understand is that leadership is about building a team. The person who would take the four or five of us out selling the Penny Saver didn't explain the product or how it was of value. Missing from the top of that organization was clarity on what the mission was and how we were providing value to those individuals we were selling to. I think that's absolutely critical. Regardless of what you're doing or where you are in the organization, understand what your role is, what you are sharing, and what are you offering.
What's the most important element in communication?
A: The first thing is to listen to the question that is being posed or the question that somebody is sending, even if they are silent. Try to ascertain what people offer at that particular moment. Do they bring a great intellectual background? Do they bring a great disciplinary background? Is there an emotional context that they're offering? Once you have a better understanding of where people are positioned, you certainly try to offer the same about yourself. You're trying to reconcile who you are internally with the mission of the organization or with a particular program. Then get everybody to share their valued different perspectives so that you can achieve the intended objective.
When has listening paid off for you?
A: A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking to immigrants from the Middle East. We were talking about California taxation. They were small business owners who were going to a tax seminar. I was explaining how the sales tax and use tax code worked here in California. For those individuals who aren't familiar with the tax regime here in California, it was very difficult to follow. That's relatively consistent for a lot of people, not just immigrants. If you've never dealt with taxes and you are a business owner, you have to just understand that tax is a different culture. It has different principles that need to be presented in an easily understood way to help business owners avoid problems that could harm their success. But I had to really listen to understand their needs and concerns so I could communicate effectively.
Q: How do you make complex issues easy to understand?
A: Since we deal with very technical matters, I have a terrific communications staff. For example, I will share a problem from a technical perspective. Then they will have me try to explain it to them more simply so we can work through the wording. It's been an incredible process. As I give public speeches or I'm sitting in meetings, I hear not just words, but watch the facial and body reactions of individuals to make sure that I am not losing them. One of the other important points that we want to make is that we try to empower people in this office. I am a firm believer in our form of governance. I'm a firm believer in trying to make people's quality of life better. I understand the value that the information has. We actually try to turn information into knowledge so that it's useful.
Q: How do you get the best outcome with limited resources?
A: You make the best use of every resource that you have whether it's time, money, or allocation of other resources. Then you need full engagement and meaningful involvement by everyone. Everyone is a leader in this process. I am so proud of the individual and collective efforts of the individuals in the Controller's Office. One example is the person in our disbursements unit who handles the mail. Although that person doesn't have to be paying attention as mail is flying by him, he actually thought through the process of how we sorted mail. He communicated a recommendation he had to make the process more efficient and save time and money. His recommendation saved the state $3,000.00 a year.
Q: How do you maintain a positive frame of mind and keep moving forward?
A: I do multiple things. Number one is your belief. It's your attitude; it's your faith. You can easily be stymied and disappointed; however, at the end of the day, I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to make sure that instead of falling into a trap where you're going to be a negative actor, I try to put my best foot forward. Being negative doesn't provide any benefit to the overall process. So number one is faith, belief, and attitude. Secondly, you have to keep yourself healthy. I've learned my lessons. I get on the treadmill. I go swimming to make sure that I am in a strong positive healthy place so that I can be at my best. Third is to make sure that you engage fully as you interact with people. So if you run into a wall, you're getting all the best options and the best advice possible so that you can create an alternative to come to the answer that will be fruitful.
Q: How do you inspire new leaders in State government?
A: I think we have to make sure that we have the leadership, the people, and the systems in place, and we dedicate more of ourselves to make sure that people are supported. I'll give you an example. In my first week at the State Controller's Office, I was pretty quiet in staff meetings. I was trying to learn. I wasn't a person who was going to jump in. I was trying to determine staff expertise, who liked to take certain domains, and who would challenge others or not. What was really helpful to me was when I staffed the former State Controller, Gray Davis. He said, "John, you came highly recommended. I'm waiting for you to jump in. You may be fearful, but it doesn't matter. You're going to make mistakes. I want you to just go ahead and participate." It was that type of supportive comment that told me that my boss wanted me to make a difference. I want people to feel that way all the time in the Controller's Office.
I feel blessed to do this work, and I hope other people do too. I have said time after time, I think the public underestimates the incredible caliber and quality of individuals who are serving them in the public domain.
This interview with John Chiang was conducted on December 14, 2012 and has been edited and condensed. John Chiang was California State Controller when this interview was conducted.