An interview with Greg Adams, former Chief Operating Officer for the state of Tennessee and current Chairman of the Board for the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics & Economics.
You worked for IBM for over 37 years, why did you decide to work for the State of Tennessee after your corporate career?
In the late 80’s I was in an accountability group with four dear friends in Knoxville, TN. While an IBM move took me away from the group, we still remained close. Twenty-two years after I physically left the group, one of the members was elected the Governor of Tennessee. That night, I texted Governor Haslam my congratulations and prayer support. He responded with a request to consider coming to Nashville and help him improve the operations of the state. Government service was not something on my radar after IBM, but he planted a thought. Over the next two and a half years, my wife and I worked through this calling on our lives and the impact another move would have, while Governor Haslam and I explored the job description of the first Chief Operating Officer in Tennessee State Government history. I thank both of them, especially my wife, for their support in this calling.
What exactly did you do as COO for the state government and how did that differ from a COO for the private sector?
The Governor tasked me with working with our twenty-three departments in making sure their operations were running as effective and efficient as possible. We followed the corporate model of the utilization of a COO with the Governor playing the role of the CEO. While overseeing the day-to-day operations I kept him fully informed. I also worked with him and our finance commissioner on our annual operating plan and also with the departments on their long-term strategies.
Since this was the first time Tennessee had a COO, what “best practices” did you bring to get started?
Most important was the foundation “practice” of defining the mission/vision of an organization. Governor Haslam first conducted a top to bottom review of each of the departments and the consistent action item was the opportunity to improve service to our citizens. From this came the start of Customer Focused Government (CFG). It was not just a program, but also a mindset that we would focus on delivering to our citizens the best possible service at the lowest possible cost. As we thought about service, it became evident that services was our core business. Services became our construct and we cataloged them (almost 1000) and established metrics and baselines for each service offering. The third leg of our communication triangle was to think about the State as an enterprise, not twenty-three individual departments. This allowed us to integrate and unify the efforts of the departments to achieve talent, innovation and cost synergies that the individual departments could not effectively manage on their own.
What were some of your top successes?
Thinking of state government as an enterprise allowed us to deliver dramatic savings and improved customer service. We adopted a Shared Services approach and consolidated seventeen processes/functions including information technology, accounting and procurement. We eliminated one hundred and seventy department logos
5and created one to support the whole State, which is delivering almost ten million impressions/month across all our social media platforms. Probably most significant was the implementation of a ‘pay for performance’ employee evaluation and compensation system that drove significant improvements in employee morale and productivity.
What was your biggest challenge?
Our twenty-three departments are large autonomous organizations run by talented commissioners with very challenging missions and big expectations from our citizens. When you go to a shared services model, centralize a number of functions, and take away the corresponding budgets and headcount, commissioners are concerned. They are held accountable for results, but now they do not directly manage key functions that they need to help them deliver those results. We therefore spent a significant amount of time on phased implementation plans, communications, reviews, and metrics on the weekly performance of the functions that were being consolidated. Corrective actions were taken immediately and as you would expect, there were many.
How did your faith impact your role as COO?
My faith was essential in this role. I was not prepared for the scope and breadth of services that citizens count on the state to provide. From adoption to foster care to education to health care to schools to safety, etc. We deal with the deaths of citizens every day. I saw employees do amazing things for people in need and then saw people trapped in hopeless situations. My faith gave me the strength to not be overwhelmed by these situations and the success, failure, or criticism from the press and the public that came with them. My identity in Christ helped keep pride in check during times of success, and helped me work through frustration, sadness and vengeful thoughts during times of adversity.
I remember a brochure saying “Tennessee is in a better place today than it has been in its 222-year history.” How so?
Under Governor Haslam, $575 million was cut in recurring spending, state government was shrunk, the budget balanced every year, the state’s savings account was tripled and Tennessee has been awarded AAA bond ratings the last two years. Tennessee’s unemployment rate has reached the lowest level in state history. Since 2011, Tennessee students have been the fastest improving in the country in academic achievement and high school graduation rates are at an all-time high. Tennessee is the first state in the nation to offer high school graduates and adults two years free community or technical college as part of the Governor’s Drive to 55 initiative.
Is business a good preparation for public service?
People in business daily define problems, create solutions, define work plans to deliver those solutions and then put in place project management disciplines to make sure the solution is delivered on time. This problem-solving process is exactly what people in public service do every day. If every businessperson could do a two to five-year stint in public service sometime during their work career, it would make a significant positive impact on how effective and efficient our society could run.