Leadership and…Barrel Racing?

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Horse riders galloping through a rodeo arena, swiftly twisting and turning around barrel obstacles, racing to finish in 20 seconds or less. Go too fast, you risk getting bucked. Go too slow, you won’t win. This, my friends, is barrel racing.

Like the intricacies of this wild sport, state and local governments face unique challenges. With these challenges come the need for customer-focused collaboration and innovative solutions. In our afternoon keynote, Texas CIO Karen Robinson not only introduced me (a life-long Northeasterner) to barrel racing itself, but also explained how competing in this sport is just like facing challenges as a public leader. Robinson gives a Texas perspective on responding to customer input, turning around tough statewide IT projects, and creating successful public-private partnerships.

Like the three barrels in barrel racing, Robinson says there are three key considerations to successful leadership:

Barrel 1: Team

As you approach that first barrel, this is where you begin to gain momentum and set the stage for the rest of the run. Like a dependable steed, the team you surround yourself with is your foundation. They should share your vision, respect your leadership, constructively challenge your thinking, and provide support. With a good, collaborative team, you can better satisfy the citizens you serve and give them a voice.

Barrel 2: Tools

When the stakes are high, you want to make sure you have the right tools. What do you need to get the job done smarter, faster, and better? Good boots and a trusty saddle are key. In the office, cutting-edge, sustainable equipment that integrates other techniques is critical to active discovery and responsive innovation. This generates better outcomes for citizens – or a better race time!

Barrel 3: Self

Regardless of your team and tools, YOU need to be a strong, confident, and reflective as a leader. A focused and accurate rider will yield a better time than one who worries about speed, alone. Leaders are not one-dimensional or impulsive. Further, not only do you need strength to stay on the horse, but to get back in the saddle if you ever fall. Dust yourself off and learn from your errors. And remember, you can always ask your team for help and spread some of the burden.

So, how has this methodology worked for Robinson in Texas? Her success is illustrated in the following two cases:


After the original contractor went bankrupt, Texas wanted to ensure a strong governance structure for the launch of their official state website project. The public-private partnership included input from customers, citizens, business leaders, and advisory groups as well as built-in accountability and transparent performance metrics. To get the word out, there was a push for rebranding and outreach. Even more inclusive and appealing to citizens, the site now included new back-end tools that allowed customization. Today, Texas.gov hosts over 1,000 online services such as driver license renewals, property tax payments, and occupational licenses, and is also mobile friendly. Enabled by this inclusion and engagement, Texas.gov recorded 6,400+ daily searches and 625,000 monthly visits in 2013. This public-private partnership is self-supporting without the use of appropriated funds and has won wide recognition for its success.

Data Center Services

Robinson faced a $1 billion challenge, consolidating 28 independently-run state agency data centers into two centers…yeah, two. Oh, and those two centers have to be state-of-the-art. Clearly, this was a huge task and involved a lot of participants with different needs. To tackle this challenge, Robinson started meeting with as many stakeholders as possible, from executive leaders to “boots on the ground folks.” More formally, this involved a three-tried structure that included a business executive leadership committee, an IT leadership committee, and a solutions group (focused on transformation, service delivery, contracts and finance, and technology). This structure provided opportunity for all stakeholders to share in relevant program decisions and produced a unified customer face to the outsourced vendors. Today, over 58% of servers are consolidated, 6,000+ servers are supported in the enterprise, and there are three petabytes of online storage along with 38 petabytes of longer-term storage – earning Robinson’s team a NASCIO special recognition award.

As in barrel racing, leading complex public projects requires clear goals and the navigation of tricky turns. Remember to stay calm throughout the process, engage stakeholders, and keep your eyes on the prize…or barrel. When you encounter obstacles, learn from them and utilize the best available tools and resources to mitigate these risks. Now, get out there and giddyup!

Click here to view the archive of the full presentation.

GovLoop recently hosted its State and Local Innovators Virtual Summit, an all-day, virtual event with six different online trainings, networking opportunities and resources to help you do your job better. Be sure to read the other recaps here.

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