Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I was born in Tucson. My father was in the first graduating medical school class from the University of Arizona, and I’m a third generation University of Arizona grad myself. Since my father was in the United Stated Air Force, he was stationed in Abilene, Texas, where we lived until I was five. We then lived in Yuma for the rest of my childhood, where my father practiced as a pediatrician. So, my roots in Arizona are very strong!
Were you in leadership roles when you were young?
Not really. I was never a student council type. The closest brush I had with leadership was when I was a senior in high school, when a teacher selected me as part of a group of students to shadow the City Council. I was chosen to shadow the mayor at the time, Jim Buster. I followed him for a day, which was a fun and enlightening experience. Fast-forward and he was the legislative liaison for ADEQ for a number of years. I still have the newspaper footage about me shadowing Jim, along with an interview between us.
You went to the University of Arizona and studied hydrology. That isn’t a common major! What sparked your interest in environmental science?
Well, I knew I wanted to go into engineering. My uncle was an engineer and I had a real penchant for mathematics and physics. I also was interested in computers, so I went to the College of Engineering and studied electrical engineering. After a year or so, I decided I did not want to be behind a desk for my entire career. So I looked into the College of Engineering to see where I might have an opportunity to do something different. Since I’ve always been into the outdoors as an avid hunter, fisher and camper, the hydrology program looked good. It was also a small program. Having come from a small town like Yuma, it was easy to feel lost in the sea of people at U of A, so the size of the program made me feel more at home.
While in college, I did an internship at the Pima County DEQ and spoke to the director, David Esposito, asking for his advice about whether or not to pursue grad school. He told me to go to law school. Sure enough, I ended up going to Lewis and Clark Law School because of the strength of its environmental law program. I knew that I wanted a career in public service and I thought the best way would be through learning as much as possible about environmental law – even though I had no intention of practicing law.
So, I sealed my fate. Now, I am behind a desk for my entire career, but I’m content in my position. My background in engineering, hydrology and law has served me well.
What sparked your interest in public service? Not everyone grows up wanting to be a public servant.
I think it was a combination of the fact that both my grandfathers were in the military. And my father’s career spent helping people and the community as a pediatrician also inspired me to be in public service.
You have served in a variety of leadership roles during the course of your career. What are some of the most important leadership lessons you have learned?
I think the greatest quality you can have as a leader is to listen before taking action. I have the good fortune to be surrounded by smart people and people that know a lot about what we are doing to protect the environment. Even though I’ve been here for 18 years, I do my best to listen before making a decision. Also, it’s important to remember to listen to people at every level – not just direct reports – especially at the staff level. Having grown up at ADEQ, starting at the staff level, I feel that a good leader will remember what it’s like to be in the trenches and value the perspectives of those currently there doing the work of the agency.
One of ADEQ’s core strategies is to “deploy lean.” How has that impacted the agency’s culture?
One main issue any organization going through a transformation has to deal with is change. It’s not an easy thing to do in anyone’s life, but it’s especially tough in a government setting. In government, people have certain expectations such as stability in the work, the mission, and the operations. When striving to operate in a Lean fashion, you’re supposed to honor the people doing the work and have them identify what is wasteful. It’s sometimes a struggle for staff to inform leadership about what is working when they are used to working in a hierarchal setting. This has been a challenge, but we’ve also had amazing accomplishments as a result. Ultimately, the goal is to stop telling people what being lean is about and rather educate them on how we operate as an organization. One day, we just want to say, “This is life at ADEQ.”
With respect to technology, I have read that ADEQ uses a “process first, technology second” approach. Could you tell me more about that strategy?
There are a number of ways I can answer. As a bit of background, I am directly involved with a joint venture with the EPA called E-Enterprise for the Environment. It represents a different way of looking at environmental governance in which the states and the EPA are partners in streamlining and modernizing the protection of human health and the environment. We have specifically sequenced what we are trying to accomplish to talk about restructuring the process - improving and simplifying it. After we streamline opportunities as far as we can, we deploy IT in order to accelerate the efforts and take them that much further. We are careful not to talk about IT; instead we talk in terms of modernization. It’s less about the tools, but more about how the tools can be used.
How is the myDEQ Web portal going?
In addition to the nationwide effort with the EPA, we are working internally with ADOA to pilot an online service that allows our agency to transact business with our customers electronically, called myDEQ. The myDEQ Web portal allows every owner or operator of a facility to obtain an account from ADEQ and then ultimately transact all business through the portal. We are still at the infancy stage, but we are beta testing right now to allow our customers to submit data for the aquifer protection permit program. In that program, we collect over one million data points a year that we currently have to receive via paper and key manually into a system to check compliance. This is just the first type of transaction. The second will be to obtain EPA ID numbers to generate hazardous waste, and third, to obtain air quality permits needed by the rock products industry electronically. The very first thing we did, though, was to allow our customers to pay bills online.
I like how you refer to your “customer.” It is an important distinction.
We use that word a lot now. At ADEQ, we want to honor our customers’ expectations regardless of the fact that they have to deal with us. The lean principle teaches us to honor what our customers value. But, we have struggled with using the term “customer” as an agency. When looking at our business from a regulatory context, we are at times more comfortable with referencing, “the end user” instead of the “customer.” So, we ask ourselves for example - who is using the inspection report? Well, it is the person receiving it, the person who has to use the report to determine what is needed to maintain or achieve compliance. In the lean vernacular, that is the customer. In the end, we adopted the lean term “customer” directly.
One of my favorite leadership coaches, Len Fuchs, says: “Leaders turn the opportunity to fail into their most notable successes.” Do you agree?
In recent history, ADEQ was one of a few agencies that removed from the state General Fund, which means none of our general operations are funded by tax dollars. We were told to be a fee-for-service organization. About 85 percent of our operation budget comes from fees for service and the remaining 15 percent comes from EPA grants. When we were going through this process, we had to convince our stakeholders to now pay for something they didn’t necessarily want but had to get - and had gotten for free for many years. As we have learned from lean, we had to look at what they value.
So we listened to them, and we heard that they wanted permits to be issued faster. That was all. They weren’t opposed to fees, as long as we would commit to issuing permits faster. I made the promise, and they followed through with their end of the commitment. So it was my turn. I assembled my best people and told them they needed to figure out how to do it faster, but I didn’t give them the tools to find a different way.
When that effort was largely unsuccessful, I started talking to people outside of the agency, which is when I became re-acquainted with Misael Cabrera. Misael is an environmental professional that I have known since high school. We had been talking about ADEQ and I remembered that during a lunch we had he complained about things taking too long at ADEQ. When I was looking for a deputy director, I called on Misael to have lunch again and asked him about the frustration he had expressed before. He was the one who opened my eyes to lean. At the end of the conversation, I asked whether he would like the opportunity to deploy the lean methodology at ADEQ, and he was all in. He has been here ever since and is the reason we’ve been largely successful in following through with the commitment that I made to issue permits faster. Misael and I are incredibly proud of the fact that we are becoming a highly-respected organization that people consider professionally run.
What do you see as one of the biggest challenges for you agency over the next five years?
I think one of the largest challenges is the change in the expectations of the workforce. The people we are hiring today don’t look at a job the same way I do, or that my generation does. When my parents got a job, it was a career. I don’t see that anymore. Instead, people are looking at jobs as stepping stones or what’s good for them right now. We need to acknowledge that things are changing and better understand what’s important to those entering the workforce in terms of an organization. The better we can do this in public service, the better we will be able to retain and take advantage of the time we have with these employees. Couple this with the aging workforce in state service. At ADEQ, over 55 percent of our employees are eligible for retirement in the next five years. This is an interesting challenge, so we have to find a balance to be successful.
On a fun note, do you have any pets?
I have two dogs. My incredible wife and two children had been bugging me for a dog for years, and we decided to try getting one from a shelter. We are fortunate to have a shelter close to our home, so we started looking for a dog on occasion. One day we went and I saw the cutest 4-month-old puppy staring at me – think basset hound with a little beagle mixed in. I remember saying, “FINALLY we have found the perfect dog!” As I was in the process of motioning my family over, I looked back and a second dog showed up in the pen – his sister. I knew then and there that I was sunk. I wasn’t going to get just one dog that day, but two. Their names are Oscar and Lucy and they are fantastic.
What about favorite pastimes?
I still try to do as much hiking, hunting and camping as I can. I have been dove hunting with the same group of guys since high school, so I try to go back to Yuma for the annual dove hunt. I have been deer hunting at the Yuma Proving Grounds with my father and his best friend for the past 30 years too. We camp at the same exact location each year down to the campfire being in the same spot. My Dad no longer goes with us, but now my son does, so the tradition lives on. In fact, my Dad’s best friend just called this week to see if we were going again this year.
What would you tell someone interested in pursuing a career in public service?
I have left state service once, only to return shortly thereafter. I can honestly say that public service is absolutely the most rewarding career you can pursue as a professional. You have the ability to be involved in public policy and make a real difference. The things that Misael and I are doing at ADEQ are making a difference not just today, but for the long-term future of the State. I feel very fortunate to be in my position and to have this opportunity. I never had any ambition to be the director - I just wanted to be a public servant and do whatever I could to protect the environment of the best state in the country. With that said, I’m having the time of my life. I love Arizona, and I have no intention to ever leave.