Talking leadership and innovation with Victor Mendez of the Federal Highway Administration

Victor Mendez is administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that supports state and local governments in the design, construction and maintenance of the nation’s highway system. Before coming to Washington, he served as director of the Arizona Department of Transportation. Mendez spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

What motivated you to follow a career in transportation?

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I started out as a young engineer. Thinking back, I migrated to transportation very early. I remember how satisfying it was to be able to say I helped design and construct a road or a bridge. When you have friends and family visiting you, you can always point to them and say, “Hey, I had a hand in building that or designing that.” I don’t know that there are many fields where you can actually point to an end product and say, “I had a hand in that.”

What advice do you have for federal leaders about promoting innovation?

I think the best way to foster innovation is to challenge employees. I ask hard questions about how we conduct business. I want to know how we can simplify processes and take on new business approaches. I’m always asking people to think creatively and to think differently. Whenever staff is explaining to me why we need to embark on a new rule or why we need to implement a new policy, I’m always asking, “How is this going to benefit the American people and how are we going to improve the results by implementing a new rule, a new regulation or a new process?”

When we innovate, we have to bring a solution to the table. That’s what innovation is all about. So often we tend to focus on process. Obviously there’s a process behind results; but really, as consumers, the American people want results.  

What sort of management techniques do you use to engage your employees?

It’s important for all our employees to understand our mission, first and foremost. We talk constantly about what that is and how everyday people have to utilize the transportation system for their own use, whether it’s to go to school, work or the doctor. I am a strong believer in communication with our employees, who work in 52 offices throughout the country, including Puerto Rico and D.C. We hold a lot of video conferences and webinars. Employees are given a rundown on the important issues for the day, and then we open it up for questions and answers. Secondly, I travel with my staff quite a bit to events or projects, and whenever we can, we’ll try to visit our divisional offices. Thirdly, we conduct employee surveys. What I learned is that our employees are very engaged. They do have a voice and we want to hear from them.

What have you learned from different bosses? 

I’ve learned you must listen to what other people are telling you. There’s a lot of intelligence and experience within our work environment, and we should always listen to that kind of experience. At the end of the day, people really appreciate when you listen to their perspective. You discover new ideas. It also doesn’t mean that you always agree. And just because you’re the administrator doesn’t mean that you have all the answers. It does mean that I have a perspective and opinion, but have to believe that solutions get better when you listen to other people.

What is the biggest surprise you have had in your job?

I came from Arizona. I got called up to Washington, D.C., and it was a big, exciting move, and I’m thinking, “I’m going to go to D.C. to work with congressional members on high-level transportation policy to solve our transportation issues.” I would venture to say that the one thing I learned is that about 85 percent of the time when a congressional member calls me, it’s really about a project in their district. They want to know if they’re short on funding and how we can make up funding. If the project has been slowed, they want to know how we are going to get it back on track. So three and a half years later, you step back and think about this, and you go back to the old saying, “All politics are local.”

If you weren’t currently in this job, what would you want to do?

Aside from point guard on the Phoenix Suns, I would still work in the transportation arena. It’s a field that I know has an impact on the economy. Our whole mission here, since day one, is to deliver our programs so we can get people back to work. I don’t know how many projects that I visited and how many contractors and private-sector people tell me that without the work we do in transportation, their workers would be home sitting around or looking for a job.

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