Leadership: Helping People Solve Problems
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
James Collins is a self-described techie nerd.
He reads a lot about technology and recognizes the role it plays in change, particularly for state governments. In fact, his master’s degree from Champlain College in Vermont is in managing innovation and information technology.
Collins, 43, a deputy secretary of state in Delaware, also heads up the state’s Division of Professional Regulation so he know the impact technology has had.
“Technology has exponentially increased the rate of change, so you’re in a constant state of change,” said Collins, a 2012 CSG Toll Fellow.
One of the people he looks to for his leadership style—W. Edwards Deming, the father of continuous improvement and quality—developed the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle. Collins takes it a step further—look at those actions again.
“You make one change and, then, for consumers, that becomes the norm and they’re looking for more,” he said. “That’s in the public and private sector, I think.”
He knows from experience. Collins brought a lot of change to the Division of Professional Regulations that helped the state better serve its customers.
He had worked for state government earlier in his career before moving into the private sector, but the reputation he had gained for working with teams and technology, as well as focusing on customer service, prompted state officials to ask him to return to Delaware state government as director of the Division of Professional Regulation in 2003.
“It was a very siloed organization that was probably a decade behind in how they approached their work,” he said.
It wasn’t that the team was bad. “It was like we were in the lumber business and still using axes,” Collins said.
So he worked to restructure the organization to create a team environment to give the office redundancy and allow it to be more responsive to customers. That included establishing a call center to address basic inquiries, standardizing the department’s agendas and minutes and establishing a customer relationship management system.
In his job as director, Collins was able to effect a lot of change specific to the Division of Professional Regulation.
Among the core principles of Deming’s philosophy, Collins said, is that to learn what your customers want, listen to them. That goes for staff as well.
“If you listen to and support your staff that are actually providing your service to your customers, they’ll tell you what they need to deliver the service that you want (to deliver),” said Collins.
“It is our responsibility as leaders to set a very clear and concise vision and then connect what people do to that vision so they have a sense of accomplishment as they are going about their work and we’re all pulling in the same direction.”
His success drew the attention of Gov. Jack Markell and Secretary of State Jeff Bullock. They asked Collins to join the secretary’s office in 2009. He kept his director’s hat, but he added working “to spread what we had been doing at professional regulation across the department.”
At first, Collins was frustrated because he couldn’t work on the same level of detail as he had been doing because he was constantly dealing with managerial duties of helping people solve problems.
“It wasn’t until I just embraced the fact that my job is to solve problems for the people who are providing service that I didn’t see it as interruptions,” he said. “I recognized that was my purpose for being here—to solve the problems.”
He got a “reset,” as he calls it, when he attended the Toll Fellowship program in 2012 and was able to spend time not only with leaders from state government executive branch, but also leaders from the judicial and legislative branches as well.
“What the Toll Fellowship did was give me a greater insight into some of the challenges and pressures that legislators are facing, so that helps me to be more prepared when I’m dealing with them (in Delaware), to be more empathetic when I’m working with them, to appreciate what their objectives are,” he said.
Collins and his wife Sharon and their daughter, Taylor, 11, live in Magnolia, Del.