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'Work in progress'

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The situation at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, a taxpayer-funded nonprofit children's advocacy group, reached crisis level last summer.

An independent audit revealed a series of problems, from over-spending to low morale to mismanaged records. The board, in turn, reached out to a well-established local leader for help: two-term Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. The board named Iorio, a Democrat who left elected office in 2011, interim CEO in August.

Iorio has since been on turbo turnaround. She helped the organization reduce staff levels, put more money in children services, redo policies and update the code of ethics. “We changed just about everything that needed to be changed there, and it's a totally different organization today,” says Iorio. “But it goes to show that organizations really can change and it really has to do with the leadership.”

She nearly balked on the Children's Board challenge to focus on her post-mayoral leadership development and speaking career. But after a closer look at the situation, what Iorio called a “textbook case of leadership gone astray,” she couldn't turn away.

Iorio, who also won elections to the Hillsborough County Commission and the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office in her career, denies speculation she will seek to enter the 2014 Florida gubernatorial race. She instead intends to focus on her next career, which includes promoting the book she wrote in 2011, “Straightforward: Ways to Live & Lead.”

Iorio recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about leadership. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.

What makes a great leader?
The person with the title is sometimes the worst leader in the room. I've seen examples of great leadership, mediocre leadership and terrible leadership. It's led me to a conclusion that leadership is not about a title, and it's a mistake to look at it that way in our country. In fact, that's not how our country has flourished. Leadership is about finding that leadership contained within you and learning to lead yourself well.

A straightforward leader also has honesty, humility and kindness, and selects people to be around you who are smarter and better than you. A leader has to be someone who can be a combination of the person who sees the big picture and has a long view but is also someone who pays enough attention to the details and they know the workings of the organization and can understand the different jobs people do.

How can leaders balance the need to hire smarter and better people while maintaining their vision? How did you do that in a large organization like Tampa's City Hall?
You have to really trust your instincts in the hiring process, and you have to really lay out the mission. You have to find people dedicated to the mission, not people who want a job.

I've been very fortunate. I've always hired people who are better and smarter and more accomplished than me, particularly the team I put together in the city. It took a few years to put the team together, but I look for complete quality. I said from the beginning this was not going to be a friends-and-family plan. This was about the best possible people to serve the public, and it took two years. I look for people who compensate for my weaknesses, who are really good at the things I'm not so good at.

You recently wrote about an introduction you had with Margret Thatcher, when you were a student in England for a semester and she was recently elected. How did that encounter shape your political leadership style?
You learn lessons throughout your life in most encounters, good and bad, and this was a good one. She treated me like I was someone really, really important. She must have spent four minutes with me, and if you have ever been on a political receiving line you know spending that much time with someone, when you have all these other people around who helped you get elected, is hard. She showed a lot of interest in a 19-year-old American student just passing through who couldn't vote for her and couldn't do anything for her.

Some people only treat important people as important, and everyone else they treat poorly. But I have found that the very best leaders treat every person as important. The CEO is important, but so is that guy who does the landscaping or the cleaning person at City Hall.

You don't always get that in leaders, but that's a trait we should look for in good leaders.

How can a leader manage a crisis well?
I think one of the first keys to a leader is to be present and be present throughout. I learned that with the deaths of our police officers, that it's so important to be totally engaged and present. The other thing I have learned about crisis (management) is the importance of a leader showing authentic emotion.

On the day of the press conference for Det. Juan Serrano (who was on Mayor Iorio's security detail and killed by a drunk driver) I stood up, and there was a whole row of cameras and media, and I just burst into tears. I went back to my office and was all slumped over at my desk and thought, God I'm a loser. I just thought what a loser I'd been in crying and not representing the city well. But about 10 minutes later I got a phone call from Chief (Stephen) Hogue who said the police officers really appreciate how much you care about them.

What is your process for making a decision in a crisis?
In times of crisis it's always important to keep a cool head and to surround yourself with the best people in the organization. You need to be very fact-based. Don't make decisions too fast.

Do you regret decisions you made in elected office?
I'm not one of those politicians who says I don't have any regrets. How can you have no regrets? I have regrets every day of my life, like why did I say that or why did I do this? I can't imagine being a self-reflective person and not having regrets about how you would do a whole host of things.

I stress this to my children who are in their early 20s, and I stress this to anyone who asks me about leadership: We are all a work in progress. You will do poorly, even in something you have historically done well at. You have to realistically assess your failures and learn from them. And you actually learn more in life from your failures than your successes.

Focusing on my time as mayor, we had a big brouhaha with the museum. Looking back I think I let it drag on too long. I could have handled it differently from a leadership perspective.

Who are some of your mentors?
I've been really fortunate to have wonderful mentors in my life, starting from an early age. I met Fran Davin when I was 22 and she was on the Hillsborough County Commission. She has really been a huge influence on my life and has helped me through every stage, both personal and political. Fred Karl, who recently passed away, was also one of my mentors. I think it's so important to have guidance and mentors but it has to be real relationships based on caring and a mutual understanding of each other.

You write about living a centered life in your book. What does that mean to you, and how can a leader live a centered life?
There are a lot of versions of a centered life, and there is no one size fits all. But I do believe in a life of moderation and balance. I see people too often who have too much going on and lack balance. I think it's important to live a life that is centered in moderation, one where you take care of yourself and pay attention to exercise and eating right. I found that as mayor, with my schedule, which was morning, noon and night, all the time, my outlet was exercise and proper eating.

Book It
Two-term Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio says the best leadership books come from history. Indeed, in a late 2012 blog post on leadership book recommendations, which she wrote with Christmas gifts in mind, Iorio made the following suggestions:
- “Team of Rivals, the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin;
- “Theodore Rex,” by Edmund Morris;
- “April 1865, The Month that Saved America,” by Jay Winik;
- “Thirteen Days, A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” by Robert F. Kennedy;
- “This Little Light of Mine, the Life of Fannie Lou Hammer,” by Kay Mills.


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