Leadership Philosophy: ‘Let People Amaze You’
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
In a recent conversation, Richard Sliwoski made a Virginia state delegate laugh—and he was being serious.
The director of Virginia’s Department of General Services said he was trying to get his agency to have more of an entrepreneurial spirit.
“He said, ‘that seems sort of incongruous: A bureaucrat saying you should be entrepreneurial,’” Sliwoski, a 2012 CSG Toll Fellow, recalled.
But it’s simple, really. “For me, it’s not making a profit; it’s saving money,” Sliwoski said. “I am here to drive down the cost of government.”
That’s the attitude he tries to instill in the 652 people he manages at the department, and he empowers them to find new ways to save money for the state.
“You find the right people who don’t want to do the same thing every day but do want to go out there and try to be the best,” he said, “that have a standard of excellence that’s second to none and you just turn them loose and let them amaze you.”
With all the talk about government efficiency, Sliwoski’s department is one that is often looked to for ways to do things better. In fact, the state has saved more than $100 million over the past six years by consolidating real estate under the Department of General Services, Sliwoski said.
In seeking more efficient ways to operate, the department has partnered with the private sector in several areas, including fleet management and maintenance of state vehicles.
Virginia now contracts with Enterprise Rent-A-Car for state vehicles. Doing so allowed the state to save on capital costs and to make it more convenient for employees.
Although the state contracts for majority of its fleet, it still owns some vehicles. To deal with maintenance issues, the Department of General Services contracts with a private company to run its maintenance control center.
“We are leveraging the expertise of the private sector to drive down the costs of government,” he said.
While outsourcing often raises red flags with state government employees, Sliwoski said it was made easier by engaging the affected employees throughout the process.
“You treat everybody with dignity and respect and you treat them as professionals—it doesn’t matter if they’re on the grounds crew, if they’re doing custodial work or if they’re one of your engineers,” he said. “If you treat people as professionals, they can understand what is going on.”
Sliwoski said his department has been running fairly lean, and worked with attrition of employees through retirements to lessen the impact on people’s jobs.
“You can show people how it will make their jobs easier so they can do what their original jobs were as opposed to additional duties that they had to take on in order to make the system work,” he said.
He recognizes the importance of keeping his employees happy, but their safety is foremost in his mind. In fact, when he talks to new employees—and he talks to every new employee in the department—he always touches on the safety issue.
He ends each talk with one major point: “My pledge to you is you will go home safe every night with all your fingers and all your toes,” Sliwoski said he tells new workers. “There is nothing you do that is so important that you should do it in an unsafe manner.”
The questions he asks new employees were shaped, in part, by his personal life. Sliwoski and his wife Leslie lost a son to cancer when he was 13 years old.
“That gives you a different perspective on life,” he said.
It also shapes his leadership philosophy.
The retired Army officer naturally admires Gen. George S. Patton, and chooses a quote from Patton’s “War As I Knew It” to help shape how he manages the Department of General Services. “Give people a mission and then let them amaze you with how they can accomplish it.”
But the other great leader Sliwoski models comes from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Mr. Fezziwig.
“He worked hard during the day but he knew how to make merry,” Sliwoski said of the character that was the opposite of the more famous Scrooge. “As long as you keep that aspect of it, that’s a great management style. You work hard, but you can enjoy what you’re doing.”
That’s something Sliwoski has done throughout his career. His current job was a natural advancement of his Army career. Sliwoski served as a Corps of Engineers officer overseas, where he did everything from managing the facilities in South Korea to serving as district engineer in Philadelphia.
It was a career path that Sliwoski didn’t originally set, but followed because he enjoyed public service.
An ROTC scholarship winner, Sliwoski thought he’d serve his four years in the military “and get out and make my fortune.”
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degree in civil engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, an MBA from Xavier University in Cincinnati, a master’s in international relations from Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., and a master’s in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
That career path may not have brought him great fortune, but it’s given him priceless experiences.
He was in the Demilitarized Zone in Korea when President Reagan visited, and had a brush with another former president recently—as an extra in the movie “Lincoln” during filming in Virginia.
Sliwoski escorted director Steven Spielberg around Virginia’s Capitol Square on a location visit for about an hour and a half. The state capitol has a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee where he assumed command of the army of northern Virginia.
“I struck a pose next to him and said, ‘you know, if I grow my beard and my hair, I look like Robert E. Lee,’” Sliwoski said he told Spielberg.
Alas, he didn’t get the part, but he did get the part of a union officer and is highly visible in the film. He is, in fact, visible in one of the movie trailers.