Tom Menino as Master of Management -- the Proof Shines Bright in His Absence

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Here’s the best definition of a good manager I ever heard: a person whose organization runs as well in his absence as when he’s there.
If you agree with that definition, that premise, you have to admit: Tom Menino is one hell of a manager.
Due to health problems, the longtime mayor of Boston has not been able to work at City Hall for almost two full months.  There have been no serious or unusual problems in how the city government functions during that period.
How many men or women managers do you know who could have been away from their desks since Oct. 26 and not have the roof fall in?  The last managerial job I had, back in 1998, I couldn’t take off a long weekend without something blowing up. 
Maybe that’s why I haven’t been a manager in 14 years.
Menino is close to 70 years old, has been in office since 1993, and is coming to the end of his fifth term next year.  Despite a list of medical problems that would make an insurance underwriter faint, he gives every indication of wanting to run for another term.
A lot of characters in Boston see themselves as future mayors.  You’d think at least one or two of them would be taking advantage of the mayor’s long hiatus to act as if his time on the big stage had finally  come, and that his mayoral announcement was just days away.
Nothing of the sort has happened.
This past Monday, the New York Times took a good look at Menino’s situation, (“Ailing Mayor of Boston Says He’s Still Up to the Job”).  The Times noted that “no politician has called for him to step aside.  Some in the news media have suggested, gently, that he should quit while he is ahead, but no potential challenger has made a peep about running for mayor next year, whether or not Mr. Menino seeks an unprecedented sixth term.”
Asked to explain his political longevity and lack of opposition, Menino said, “How I explain this is, people have to have faith in you.  That’s the key to this whole thing.”
Menino became mayor accidentally: Ray Flynn quit to accept the posting as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and then City Council President Menino moved up automatically.  But it’s no accident that Menino went on to become the longest-serving mayor in Boston history.  With the exception of the late Ted Kennedy, Menino has proved to be the best Massachusetts politician of his generation.
Not coincidentally, Menino and Kennedy shared the traits of a classical hard-nosed, hands-on, I-expect-results manager.
I enjoyed every word and turn of phrase in the Times piece.  When the reporter, Katharine Q. Seelye, asked him to “name the best thing he had done for Boston,” I hung on his reply.
“My No. 1 thing is bringing racial harmony to the city,” he said.
Wow. Good answer.
It was also a truthful assessment and a reminder of how good policy making equals good politics more often than not -- and sometimes in ways that make history.
On her first day on the job Monday, Dec. 17, the new general manager of the MBTA, Beverly Scott, described herself to the State House News Service as “a high-impact player.” 
“I’m typically a start-up, fix-it, turn-around, transition manager,” Ms. Scott was quoted.  “My typical lifespan at organizations is about a five-year period of time.  I’m not trying to suggest that a change manager is a better manager than who is a maintenance manager, but you just need to know who you are, and that’s really the essence of who I am, is very much a change manager.  I’m a high-impact player.”
I admire Ms. Scott’s confidence.  I sincerely wish her the best results in all of her bold plans and endeavors.  But as a daily rider of the T beast, I’d say that the union-shackled, dollar-devouring, creaky-infrastructured MBTA is more likely to have a high impact on its general manager than vice versa; further, those impacts are likely to resemble what happens to passengers during Green Line crashes.

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