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Faces of Leadership

Scott Burns

When government entities want to reach out to their bosses--the taxpaying citizenry--it often uses Saint Paul-based GovDelivery to facilitate the process. A provider of government-to-citizen digital communications, GovDelivery boasts more than 450 government clients.
The 12-year-old company has its roots as a partnership with local Minnesota governments to provide email communication to the public. It’s since widened its scope to provide communications services for federal, state, and local governments along with defense, emergency management, and other entities.
CEO and co-founder Scott Burns, 37, recently took time to share some of his philosophies on leadership, and what he’s learned from both his clients and employees.
Leading a team means reaching individuals. In high school, Burns was an accomplished Alpine ski racer. The experience had an impact on him because it showed how to be a leader on a team of individuals. “Skiing is fundamentally an individual sport,” he says. “Figuring out how to bring people together who were competing with each other in a way was something that I tried to do. I also got to see how my coach, Scott Ransom, stitched that together. He had a style that was focused on allowing each individual to pursue excellence in their own way.
“That was sort of the basis of my style of management and leadership here: I see a company of 100 people as a collection of individuals with their own potential and their own constraints and talents,” the Duluth native continues. “My job is to make sure they’re all generally moving in the same direction, but doing it with a lot of enthusiasm and ownership. We try to be supportive of each person’s way of getting the job done, rather than having some robotic format.”
Leadership in the public sector is a completely different animal. A private company with a public client portfolio faces unique complexities and challenges, and you have to adapt your leadership approach to fit the situation. “The biggest myth about the public sector is that it could be more efficient if it just copied the private sector,” says Burns. “The public sector is a football game and the private sector is a soccer game--even though they look roughly the same, you can’t take the approach from one and have quality results in the other.”
If you’re at FEMA, Burns observes, you might articulate a mission of keeping America safe in case of a disaster. The difference, he says, is that skilled leaders in that setting break that down idea further: The mission might become having disaster-preparedness kits in half of American homes, and here’s how the state-level offices are going to make that happen.
 “What I’ve observed from the public-sector leaders we’ve worked with--who are often in the civil service below the political level--is that the successful ones are able to articulate what the objective of their office--their department, organization, agency, whatever--in a way that others can rally around.”
Sometimes it takes longer to make a good bottle of wine. Burns says he’s become more patient and positive in his leadership approach over the years--thinking in terms of three-year objectives rather than one-day objectives. “When you’re younger, you think that the key to writing a great novel is to have a great idea for that novel,” he says. “As you get older, you realize the key is the hard work of actually writing those 500 pages and editing it.”
Positivity can’t be contrived. Employees can see through a rah-rah demeanor, and it can damage morale. “I thought early on that I had to seem positive all the time,” Burns says. “But the more people you get, the more likely someone can tell when you’re faking it. You have to come in with a fundamentally positive outlook every day, and you have to mean it.”
A stable supporting cast can free up time to see the bigger picture. One of the rewards of the sort of growth GovDelivery has enjoyed is to be able to hire the right people, according to Burns. He spends about 25 percent of his time making sure the company has the right people: recruiting workers who he feels would be positive additions, and working with people here to make sure they have the opportunities they need to develop into even better leaders on their own.
“If you don’t have good people around you, you’re not going to accomplish anything interesting,” he says. “The complexity of a modern technology company means there are hundreds of aspects of this business that I cannot be an expert on. So I’ve shifted my focus to being an expert on how to recruit great people.”

Dan Heilman's last article for The Line was a Faces of Leadership piece on the U of M's Pamela Wheelock, in our August 22, 2012 issue.
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