DES Deputy Director Jim Hillyard: Making Our State A Better Place through Service

April 20, 2015 by Jennifer Woods
Recently, I sat down with Jim Hillyard, the Deputy Director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, to find out more about his career path, how he makes important decisions in his current role and a little more about who he is away from his desk.

You were in the military prior to joining the state – a Marine to be exact. How did this experience shape your leadership style?

Whenever I hear the question: “What is your leadership style,” I think it’s a trick question. In my mind, the only correct answer is my leadership style is whatever the organization needs today. There are times in a crisis when the organization needs a really strong leadership style. There are times when an organization needs a more facilitating style that draws on the team’s experience, wisdom and creativity. And, there are other times when the best leadership is no leadership, when it’s time to step back and grow the capacity of the organization by letting other people take the lead.  Any one size-fits-all leadership style is probably more about what makes the leader comfortable. We don’t have teams to make leaders comfortable. We have leaders to make teams effective.  For me, that is the key to leadership style – it is adapting my style to the needs of the organization at that time.

Do you celebrate the Marine Birthday?

Well, of course I do! Now, that was a silly question!

What did you study in college?

I went to college without any notion of what I wanted to study. I spent my first years taking literature, history and art. Then, I stumbled onto an economics class and it captured my imagination because it was a way of understanding human behavior that had never occurred to me before. It was a way of analyzing why people make the economic decisions they make. So, I ended up getting a degree in economics.

You have worked in the state government for over 20 years. What lessons have you learned along the way?

You know, I joined the Marine Corps in part because as a young man, blowing things up sounded like a good time. But, I found that what I loved most about the Corps were the Marines. They are wonderful people and the kinds of guys I want to be friends with and have covering my back if things go south.

I found the exact same thing about the state government – that people join state service for all kinds of reasons. But, they only stay because they love the work, it’s meaningful and they are making the state of Arizona a better place. In my case, I have the privilege of coming to work every day and being surrounded by and serving those people. That’s just awesome. Folks are not here for fame, for the salary or for the stock options. They are here because they want to make a difference. And, those are the kind of folks that I want to spend my career with.

So you’ve been at DES for nearly a decade. What do you see as the agency’s biggest challenge in the next year? Next five years?

Well, ok, so let me start with the strategic and then go tactical. Strategically, over the next one through five years, DES has a tremendous opportunity. For the first time, we have an opportunity to really define the value-add of what DES provides to the state.

Governor Ducey has stressed his priority to create economic opportunities for all of Arizona and to grow our state’s economy and competitiveness. What people don’t recognize is that is also fundamentally what DES is trying to do. Any business needs human capital. And, we are in the business of building human capital. We do it in the present by providing job training and connecting employers and employees. And, we do it in the future by ensuring that about 500,000 children went to school last year and were able to focus because they weren’t hungry. I think we have a real opportunity to make Arizona more economically competitive and enable Arizonans to reach their potential.

Tactically, we have to continue to find ways to be more effective. For example, we have had tremendous productivity and efficiency improvements in many of our divisions like the Division of Benefits and Medical Eligibility that conducts food stamps and Medicaid eligibility. Their productivity has grown by over 50 percent in the last four years. Unfortunately, the caseload has grown by 100 percent in that same time period. So, we have to find ways to drive bigger and better results for Arizonans with fewer resources. That means leveraging things like big data, process improvement and technology more broadly to continue to adapt.

What’s one of the more exciting things happening at DES?

Process improvement. We have a number of projects in the department that promise to show huge results. And, it’s not only those projects led by the Government Transformation Office, which have been tremendous in our areas of child development home licensing and procurement. But, we also have projects in divisions like Adult Protective Services. That division’s caseload has tripled the last five years. They have seen an increase in reports of more than 25 percent in three of the last four years. You can’t hire your way out a situation like that. So, the only way for them to keep vulnerable Arizonans safe is to find ways to work cases and engage people in a more efficient fashion. Right now, we have the entire Adult Protective Services leadership team in process improvement training to train them to focus and facilitate their staff in identifying real ways to work cases more efficiently, testing them and then expanding their use to the rest of DES. Our goal is to empower staff at the ground level to increase efficiency.

How is the data center move going?

It’s going great. But, we are just getting to the hard part. We have identified the new facility, the network infrastructure is in place, and the computer and storage infrastructure is being put in place. Starting in August we will begin incrementally migrating clusters of systems into the new infrastructure. The proof will be in that pudding. We have a zero downtime tolerance here. One in five Arizonans are served by DES and we simply cannot have an interruption of those services.

Do you have any favorite expressions?

Yes. [Big smile]. This business is fundamentally about people. I think you engage folks with enthusiasm, kindness and respect. And, you get it back in return. I think a smile is much more a more powerful expression than any truism I could tout.

Do you have any pets or pastimes?

Well, I do have cats. Who doesn’t love cats, but what do you say about a cat? It lives the life we all want to live! My favorite pastime outside of work is backpacking, which is distinct in my mind from hiking. Hiking is a great physical activity. Backpacking is as much mental as physical – with adventure. The combination of the beauty of nature and at the same time having to really think through all the things we take for granted - like food, water and the weather – is both challenging and refreshing.

What would you tell someone considering a career in public service?

When someone asks me about a career in state government, I ask him or her a question: “What motivates you?” Because, if his answer is recognition, titles, respect or money, then they should run, not walk, from state service. That is not what we do. If what motivates a person is the ability to do meaningful work to make our state better in a tangible way, then there is nothing better than state service. You can make widgets or sell stuff, but we help people when they need it the most.

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