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Finding Bridges

Richard Costigan

State Personnel Board Member and representative on the CalPERS Board of Administration

Richard Costigan

Q: How would you compare leadership on a Board to leadership in the Executive Branch of the Schwarzenegger Administration?

A: I always try to tell folks it's kind of a half step behind or a half step in front. You're always half a step behind your boss. With the Governor, it was a half-step to the side, always close enough if he needed me, but always respectfully a half step behind, because he was the elected official. He was the boss. What you need is the ability to interact and work with people. You also have to be "in the room" so to speak, but not necessarily physically in the room. At the end of the day, it's the Governor that makes all the decisions. As a senior staffer, you provide the Governor with all the information he needs to make the decision.

Serving as a Board Member is a little different in that you don't want to micromanage staff; you want to empower staff. You really want to work with staff. Also, you're the decision maker. So it's really been unique for me. I feel very lucky I've been able to have a foot in both worlds.

Q: What is the primary thing you've learned about implementing change?

A: I would say the biggest lesson that I've learned in leadership change is to always hire people who are better than I am. Sometimes people say "I'm at the top of the pyramid; I'm not going to hire someone as smart as me." My view is if I surround myself with very smart people, if I allow them to challenge me, it makes me a better person. You have to be comfortable in your success. The reason you're in a position of leadership is that you've achieved success. People see you in that light. You shouldn't be afraid of bringing in folks that are better than you and who challenge you. At the same time, as the leader you have to ensure that you protect your staff; that you take responsibility. You can't have all the glory of leadership and all the kudos without accepting the responsibilities and the failures.

Q: What is one of the biggest challenges government leaders face as opposed to those leading a private sector company?

A: I think one of the hardest things in State government is that you have people that are permanent working with those who can come and go with the administration. You have to find a bridge between the two. Every four years the organization changes. So, you have to get the right people. They have to be innovative, willing to adapt, willing to change. Leaders also have to convey these policy changes to a civil servant who may be in that department for many years. Everyone has to be able to adapt.

Q: What is the best advice you've ever received about leading during challenging times?

A: I've gotten a lot of advice over the years. The best advice was that you have to step away from it at times because your life will become all-consuming. When I was in the Governor's office, facing some particularly challenging times, the First Lady told me to turn the BlackBerry off. Take a step away and be with your family for a while. You have to make time for yourself. And I did. It isn't easy because the positions I've held you only have a finite number of years to accomplish your goals and to make positive changes.

And don't let change scare you. Change is good. Change challenges you. Change can make you more passionate about what you do.

This interview with State Personnel Board Member and representative on the CalPERS Board of Administration Richard Costigan was conducted November 13, 2012 and has been edited and condensed.

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