In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Michael Rogers, Former Executive Director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG). Prior to his appointment at COG, Mr. Rogers enjoyed a distinguished career as City Administrator and Deputy Mayor for Operations for the District of Columbia, was Director of the Mayor’s Office of Contracts/Chief Procurement Officer for the City of New York and Vice President/Municipal Services for Ogden Services Corporation.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Marion Barry, former Mayor of Washington DC
Ron Brown, former US Secretary of Commerce
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Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be speaking with Michael Rogers. Michael has had a long and distinguished career including serving as chief procurement officer for New York city, the DC city administrator and executive director of metropolitan Washington council of governments.
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Now here's my conversation with Michael Rogers.
Michael Rogers. Welcome to Partnering Leadership podcast. Really excited to have you with me today.
Thank you so much Mahan, I'm glad to be here.
You've had an impactful career in many different cities. Most, especially here in the nation's Capitol was wondering first though, whereabouts you grew up, Michael, and how that impacted the kind of leader you've become.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and I grew up during the civil rights movement. I often saw people like Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, and a number of the great civil rights leaders of the time on campus at Clark Atlanta University, where I attended. And so I saw what leadership looked like and what activism was about.
And I think that seeing those kinds of role models helped shape my thirst for having impact and for leadership back then. I knew that from high school that I wanted to go into public administration, public affairs. And so when I went to college and majored in political science, got involved in voter registration, political activity, organizing and stuff.
That was something that was going to carry me through my career because it was inbred in me and and I'm a preacher's kid too. And my dad was a preacher and an activist as well. So I got it at home and in the street, if you will.
And that's fantastic. So you aspire to it, you studied political science and then went to graduate school and you wanted to get involved in government, which is what you did up in Michigan.
Yes. I was accepted into a public policy program at the university of Michigan for the masters. And part of that program was an internship with the city government and the city administrator's office. And that's where I landed. And that became my first professional opportunity in the city administrator's office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
And obviously eventually you came to DC then went up to New York and you had a pretty unique experience while you were working as a vice president at Ogden in New York.
Yes. That was a tremendously impactful experience because I went to New York as the executive director of the Jacob Javits convention center.
Ogden allied services had been hired by the state to manage that convention center. So you had a private company managing a public facility. I had been deputy general manager here at the Washington DC convention center. And that's why they were interested in my experience.
But New York is a big stage and there are a lot of challenges with opening that new facility. It was late, it was already, had a mock on its back, if you will, from other various problems that they had.
And I just walk right into a series of challenges with unions even down to how we handle the trash, it seems that contractors just showed up and said, We're the five brothers, we do your trash and they didn't have a contract, you know?
So, I had to sort through that, you know, as one of the problems because in that industry in New York, it's noted to be a pretty rough industry. So, I ended up going to the city and finding the public official, who regulated that particular industry and said, okay, I need a clean trash contractor, who should I contract with? And who's big enough to keep the business and not create a big problem in the community if you know what I mean.
So I started off by solving problems like that right off the bat. And after getting jabots open, we ended up going to the corporate office of Ogden. They were a building services company. And they operated across the country, basically in the private sector and they want us to take advantage of my experience and in government to expand their business to the government.
I started doing business attempting to do business with the city of New York and quickly discovered that that was no easy task, that in the building services industry on the public side, we were an unwelcome entrant and competitor, and I just observed some things that clearly were not ethical and how some of the same old businesses kept getting the same work.
And so ultimately Ogden on my recommendation said, we're not doing business with y'all, you know, we're pulling out, but that wasn't the end of it. There was a big blow up in, on New York City contracting. The governor ended up appointing a commission on New York City contracting to investigate the scandal that happened wanting to make reforms.
When the commission started reviewing the files and contracting to do their work, they saw all these letters from this guy who seemed to be angry about something. This guy named Michael Rogers that worked for Ogden. And I had filed a number of protests and had told them all what they're doing wrong and why we disagree with how they come out, et cetera.
And so they asked me what was the problem? So I gave them my experience ended up being their lead witness commission Hill hearing in New York. And my opening statement turned out to be the title of their report. My opening statement was, -Doing business with the city of New York was like sailing on a ship without a captain nobody's in charge.-
And so their report was ship without a captain New York City contractor.
And so I made a number of recommendations. Those recommendations were adopted by the commission, commission, made those recommendations to the city charter commission. They were voted on by the citizens and adopted. And after that, the mayor asked me to come and lead contracting operations for the city of New York, which at that time was a $7 billion operation.
When we did the study, there was, you know, more than 3000 people involved in procurement across the city. Any of them not providing value added services. So we launched our procurement reform initiative there. I even started before I started the job. With the help of the fund for the city of New York, I held a conference with those that I'd be working with kind of an introductory conference to get an understanding of what some of the issues were, and so that we could together start developing a common vision for where we wanted to take contracting.
And we did, and I focused on the thing was computerize centralized, professionalized. And with that kind of demotic approach and develop programs of that, that became the mission of New York City procurement reform.
And one of the key things that we did was create a procurement training Institute. And this is something I believe in that you've got to invest in people. If you want to transform an organization, you've got to invest in people and give them the tools they need, the skills they need to make the kind of contribution that you expect them to make in the organization.
And I dare say that that particular program, which was started about 1993, still exists today. You know, so you do something of value in an organization and it will outlive you, you know, many, many years.
Now, Michael, you obviously did a fabulous job there. I'm just curious though, even before getting that opportunity.
You saw there was corruption going on in the city government, and you chose not to participate in that while many that had come before you had chosen to continue to participate in it. What was it that drove you to get Ogden out of that business and pull yourself out, which eventually then led to the future opportunities?
Well, I'm trained in city management. There is a code of ethics at the international city management city and County management association of that has been ingrained in me as a public administrator from the very beginning. And we just don't do corruption. If we see it, you know, we call it what it is and I try to change the organization.
So I knew that in order for us to be successful, we were going to have to change the structure and not participate in ongoing way of doing business. No, that had been experienced in the industry.
So you left an impact at a legacy there. Eventually you came down to DC and that led you to an opportunity to lead the metropolitan Washington Regents council of governments. But right off the bat, you were headed the challenge there.
Yes. When I came back to Washington, I first went to the commerce department, worked for Ron Brown. And then became city administrator for Marion Barry, at the time of a very difficult time for the city of when financial challenges we're facing, and then with the appointment of a control board and all of that, and one of the big issues was a water and sewer operation. It's called Blue Plains it's the wastewater treatment plant and it was an agency within the department of public works. But this was, an agency that the suburban communities, Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's, contributed to.
And as long as the district had a wastewater treatment plant that could accommodate their capacity as well, they didn't have to build a new plant. So, you know, it makes sense. It was cheaper for them to invest in capital and the district.
But during the financial crisis, $10 million was taken from water and sewer utility fund and use for the general fund. So naturally it created a big problem in the minds of the suburban communities that the district had taken money from them.
And my first meeting as city administrator at the council of governments I walked into this uproar, about this, about what the district was going to do and what are we going to do?
And they had discussed a number of options, including creating a private, you know, contracting out planes and, or take over by the federal government, et cetera, et cetera. And that's what I walked into.
So I was able to convince them, let's hold up a second. Let me come back with you with an option. And I came back with an option to create a district authority with suburban representation, representation from the wholesale members. And, and I had to sell that on the district side as well, you know, because it was a district asset. And then why would we want to have suburban people sitting, making decisions on our water? They can't, you know, they can't have input on our water rates, et cetera, et cetera.
So we were, through negotiations, we were able to work out all of those issues and even get the council of the district to give up. It's a rate making authority on the water because since they hadn't raised water rates in 10 years, which is part of the problem, we were able to create this authority that has now become recognized as one of the best run premier water and sewer facilities in the country.
And it's all from a decision to solve a problem, maintain regional comity, keep everybody at the table, and force, you know, their interest, you know, together that we can work through this. And, and it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy because there was no trust from those suburban communities of the district leadership at the time. But over time it has, it has improved.
And then at the council of governments, we, where I went after a district walked in and those talk had been around for 40 years. That's a valuable organization, but it was rather quiet and there was an opportunity to be more impactful.
And I sold the board on a board of directors on this idea of doing a strategic plan, which would have been their first. And the purpose of the strategic plan was to increase the value of the organization to the members. And you do that by helping members understand what you really do and showing the impact that you have.
So we were able to do that and HOK was the talk of the town, you know, with the many things that we did, but we also got regional directors together, and provided that forum for them to get to know each other.
And we started something, you know, an annual retreat with a board that still goes on today. This is more than 20 years, you know? And they, they look forward to, to it. It's a chance to sharing and people to get to know each other. If you're just coming to a meeting at COG once a month, you know, for two hours, there's not an opportunity for a dialogue to really get to know each other. And then where there's a big regional problem, you find that you don't have, you haven't built the trust that you need and the kind of relationship you need in order to work through and solve those problems. But we were able to do that. And so I'm glad that it's still going. And we also recognizing that some of the regional leaders were senior, that we're got to face a deficit and regional leadership in the cities and counties that we created the Institute for regional excellence. And it was a focus on recruiting people from the cities and counties to come to understand the language of regionalism, language of cooperation and the tools of cooperation.
As a way and the importance of it as a way to keep COG as an organization that was making an impact for these counties and cities and giving them what they needed and that was created. And it's still going on as is the Institute for the center for excellence at the District of Columbia which I created when I was there for managers, managers, they're investing in people.
And, you know, those are the kinds of things that I'm very proud of in terms of where you can transform an organization to investing in people and giving them the kind of tools that they need focusing on what the organization needs to grow and excel. And it will outlast you many, many years when you do that.
And you have done a wonderful job of that, Michael, and a couple of things that I noticed about your career. One is that investing in people for you, it's not just been something you talk about. It's something you have done. And as a result of that, there's so many different initiatives and things, whether you started in New York with DC government or with COG that to this day are continuing.
The other unique strength and I want to find out a little bit more about this leadership aspect is that whether it was in New York or DC government, and then a metropolitan Washington council of governments, you were able to lead people whose interests initially not might not have aligned with each other and were able to engage a broad group of stakeholders.
How were you able to do that?
Well, you know, I always focus and try to understand what everyone's interest is. Listening is very important. And just, what is the problem from your perspective and what are the parameters that you consider important in solving this particular problem and just through dialogue and sometimes shuttle diplomacy going back and forth, you know, well, you know, so-and-so has a concern about this? Can you give on this? You have to be an active negotiator and diplomat and bringing stakeholders together to try to define issue around common interests that you really not that different. You know, that you may be able to give a little bit over here and we may have a deal to be able to move forward.
So I was able to do that at, at COG and there were issues that came up. I mean, the water, the regional water drought issue was one of the big issues that we faced and it took a shall we say diplomacy, you know, to bring the big counties together because they had different interests in the Maryland County.
So you just got to hang in there, focus on just what is the issue. And understand what's needed in order to bring people together and don't let it go until you get there.
That is great hearing from a person that again, has been able to actually bring disparate groups and various stakeholders together repeatedly over a very fruitful career.
So, Michael, if you were to give advice to a younger leader that wants to aspire to be as impactful as you have been in your leadership journey, what piece of advice would you give them?
One hone your skills. You know, understand what your core skills are and make sure that analysis and use of data is a part of those skills because that's how you are able to figure out what the problem is and your options for solving the problem. So it's yourself in terms of making sure you are prepared.
The other thing is always be a good listener to those that you work with, as well as your subordinates and find yourself a mentor, someone that you can interact with and bounce things off with and who can guide you in your career.
Also, I always remember that in public service, especially, and I think this is the private sector as well is ask yourself, we're making a decision, how will this decision impact people? And if you are trying to do something positive, you should be clear about how you're going to do it. And I mean, there are winners and losers in this public policy game, and you just gotta be clear about who that is and whose side you want to be on and what interests you're trying to move, but keep focused on where the impact is.
And I would finally say that conduct yourself in a way that you dare to have impact. And having impact means that when you leave the organization, people know you've been there and they will say, I remember when did X, Y, Z.
Which means that you've improved the organization on a way that people appreciate. And, and therefore you, in many ways have improved their lives.
Fabulous advice, Michael, in essence, part of what you said is make sure you'd leave a legacy of impact in the organizations that you've been around.
What fabulous advice, Michael, in that you have left organizations you have been associated with better off we're decades later. They still have some of the programs and benefiting from some of the leadership that you showed there. So it's important for us to leave an imprint on the people and organizations we touch. I really appreciate you taking your time to share some of your history, your background, legacy of impact and leadership advice with the partnering leadership community.
Thank you so much, Michael Rogers.
Okay. Thank you so much, Mahan. Appreciate it.
Former Executive Director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG)
Senior Vice President, Chief Operating Officer and Strategy Executive, strategic thinker and collaborative leader with extensive management and healthcare experience known driving the success of for-profit, not-for-profit, higher education and government organizations. Recognized for leveraging leadership talents to optimize performance, revenue, market share and profit. Possess demonstrated leadership problem solving skills, vision, collaboration and influence in organizations and government agencies ranging up to 42,000 employees with budget responsibility to $5 billion.