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August 2017

Three leaders share their perspectives on what it takes to head a motor vehicle agency


iStock 000005913775Medium 1Cultivating Relationships

During my career in state government, I have had the opportunity to serve in leadership roles of two organizations in the transportation sector: first as a major in the Nebraska State Patrol and now as the director of the Department of Motor Vehicles. While thousands of books, articles, white papers and studies have been written on what leadership is and how to be an effective leader, the one theme I have found to be most universal is relationships.

Building relationships with employees is key to being an effective leader, and the components involved in building those relationships may differ based on the organization. Understanding the culture, the public’s expectations, the “personality” of the employees and the difference in statutory responsibilities of an organization are critical to developing these relationships.

Most law enforcement agencies have a para-military culture, which lends itself to an environment steeped with traditions, a more formalized decision-making structure and a more vertical management tree. The nature of work in a motor vehicle agency allows for more latitude in procedures and protocols. Interactions are business-driven in a motor vehicle agency, while in a law enforcement agency interactions are driven by safety and legal requirements.

The public’s expectation of a law enforcement agency and a motor vehicle agency differ greatly, and for good reason. Residents come to the DMV for a service that is statutorily required—something they need to do. Oftentimes, when the public has contact with law enforcement, it is because they have experienced an event where they need assistance. These two different expectations are important for understanding what drives an organization.

Additionally, people are different, and each individual has different strengths. Generally speaking, the person who is able to risk his or her safety to protect someone else from danger is not necessarily the same person who can interact with the sometimes unhappy public eight hours a day, five days a week—and vice versa. The statutory mandates of a motor vehicle agency tend to fall into more of a regulatory scope, and the authority of a law enforcement agency is in the enforcement realm.

Recognizing, understanding and adapting to these differences, and then changing your behavior, creates the fertile environment for relationships to grow and effective leadership to bloom.

iStock 000005913775Medium 2Hands-On Leadership

Taking on the role of director of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in the U.S. Virgin Islands came with many challenges, including low employee morale, long lines and many complaints from our customers. The fact that the U.S. Virgin Islands are made up of three islands—St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John—also is a challenge. At times it is difficult to manage these three different locations.

Wanting to reshape the BMV to make it a doable, feasible and pleasant environment for both employees and customers, I did an in-depth assessment of the bureau’s structure, policies and procedures. I looked at ways to boost employee morale, and then I tried a hands-on approach in which I worked the floor assisting customers with their issues and problems. In doing so, the service at the bureau has increased tremendously.

Being a leader at the BMV is so different from being the leader of any other agency, mainly because of its unique qualities and the diverse individuals who pass through our doors. Being a part of the AAMVA network has many perks and helps me to be the best leader I can be. AAMVA provides up-to-date information as it pertains to the motor vehicle environment, which is useful for what I am accomplishing.

As a leader of a motor vehicle agency, I am a public servant. Being a public servant means that I am here to serve the public and provide the best quality and efficient service to our motorists. My advice to future leaders is to make thorough assessments, understand your agency, make fair decisions, and set clear goals or visions for the future.

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The Benefits of Leadership Training

Prior to being appointed Connecticut’s DMV commissioner one year ago by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, I had the tremendous good fortune of participating in AAMVA’s first Leadership Academy in the fall of 2014 when I was the deputy commissioner. It was at this one-week Leadership Academy where I gained new insights and a clearer understanding of what leadership is all about. AAMVA’s program was outstanding and covered a wide variety of topics on leadership that included hands-on activities, and engaging in participatory workshops and meetings with our federal counterparts. It was a revealing experience that showed me varied facets of leadership and ways to incorporate them into my approaches in Connecticut.

Here are some pivotal reasons agency leaders and potential leaders should consider this training. First, the AAMVA Leadership Academy included opportunities to meet and learn from other DMV colleagues throughout North America. Those interactions reminded me that you can learn a great deal from others when you’re willing to listen, and you can leverage things they have learned or accomplished so you can make faster progress in your own organization. Second, I learned that leadership encompasses many different elements, including collaboration, accountability, vision and clear communication. Underlining all of these factors is the ability to truly listen to your customers, colleagues and employees.

Leading any large public-sector agency, such as a state motor vehicle department, presents many challenges on a daily basis. As I think about my experience at the AAMVA Leadership Academy, I reflect on the relationships I built and the connections I made. Many of the problems and opportunities across all jurisdictions are similar. It’s invaluable to me that I can simply pick up the phone and reconnect with someone who will understand and can offer advice.

Leaders and potential leaders can grow through this program. I encourage them to attend an AAMVA Leadership Academy in order to gain insights into leadership and how best to motivate and positively influence those around you. It is an opportunity to seize. That’s leadership, too.