Lessons in Public Administration & Leadership from the Women in Charge

by Caroline Stevens

5 Fundamentals from Geraldine Knatz & Gina Marie Lindsey

Gina Marie Lindsey speaks with Price students
Gina Marie Lindsey speaks with Price students

Recently, the Bedrosian Center and the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) hosted two of LA’s most successful women in public administration for a conversation about public service, organizational governance, and leadership among females in the public sector. Geraldine Knatz, the recently retired Director of The Port of Los Angeles, and Gina Marie Lindsey, the Director of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) joined us to express their thoughts and share their fundamental career lessons with policy practitioners and students here at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.

After a brief open dialogue with these exemplary women, it was evident that both public officials possessed an invigorating tenacity for tackling insurmountable challenges, a zest for careerist adventures, and a penchant for getting things done the “right way” with a strong sense of professional ethics. They shared similar stories of early self-doubt and questioning existing structures, while explaining methods to overcome these common challenges. Within these stories they imparted some choice words of wisdom and essential lessons for those of us in the career building process and interested in emulating excellent leadership qualities.

Geraldine Gnatz
Geraldine Gnatz

Geraldine Knatz – 6 Sayings To Live by

Geraldine started her career as an Environmental Scientist for the Port of LA in 1977. She quickly ascended through the ranks to become the Managing Director at the Port of Long Beach. In 2006 she was selected from a pool of highly competitive candidates to become the new Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles, and was the first woman to ever wield the position. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about Knatz is her unbridled effervescence when she describes her career, which has clearly been a long and sometimes arduous trek to the height of success.

When she applied for the Executive Director position with Port of LA, she was originally rejected during the first round of interviews, however her husband encouraged her to call and find out why she had not been considered as the Managing Director of the largest neighboring port organization in Southern California. Knatz scoffed at her husband and chalked up her rejection as mere happenstance, “these positions are political, they probably have someone else in mind,” she told him, but when she gave into her own curiosity and called back the hiring team she learned that she had indeed been sent the wrong form letter in error, and instead of a rejection, she was a strong consideration. She then recounted her embarrassment that her first interviewer had quite literally, slept through the majority of their interaction, and that she had left thinking it was silly to show up in the first place. Less than a month later she was offered the position and became the first female Executive Director of the busiest port in the United States, and the 9th busiest port in the world.  Geraldine just retired this year and was recently inducted into The National Academy of Engineers (NAE), which is the highest professional distinction for engineering professionals in the country. When we inquired about her values, she responded promptly with her “six sayings to live by” for honest leadership and success.

Use We, NOT I

Knatz fondly recalled her first policy memorandum where she had written about her tasks in the first person. “My boss went through and crossed out every single I that I had written, never once did I mention the organization!” She asserted that your work is not about you when you strive for excellence in the public sector, and that you can only be as good as the place and people you work for. Remembering that there is no “I” in success is key to staying on track, and continuing to accomplish the most important organizational goals as a team and part of a communal process.

All deals made in the men’s room are null and void

“I mean, this one is pretty obvious now,” exclaimed Knatz, “but I made sure that all progress and deals were done in the open and often times I spoke up to be included.” Knatz encouraged all women in the room to legitimize their efforts by reserving a seat at the table regardless of what is being communicated in the background by the other managers and peers you work with.

Do what’s right, sleep at night

Knatz recalled many instances in her career where she had to choose to walk away from opportunities or current positions in order to maintain her own personal moral code and professional ethics. She advised never to make decisions that you wouldn’t feel comfortable explaining to your Board of Directors or to the public, and to think twice before doing favors that involve outside parties in your organization. “Doors will open and close in your career path, but at the end of the day you have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know that you did your best to remain true to what you believe in.”

Keep the main thing, the main thing

The most important tenet for measurable organizational success is its focus on one fundamental goal or deliverable at that time. While it’s often unavoidable to have multiple projects and timelines, Knatz recalled that sometimes you have to push for the biggest or most essential item be finished in order to be perceived as a success. She recalled a year where an environmental impact report became her “follow-through” obsession, and by keeping that project “the main thing” she was recognized as a proverbial mover of mountains later on. Keeping the organizational focus on the most important deliverable is fundamental to perceive success in the public sector, and to the public, perception is tantamount to reality. 

If it’s a dumb idea, it’s not our policy

Knatz encouraged the practitioners in the room to continue infusing their organizations with new blood and fresh outlooks for every internal process. She mentioned that every time she went to a new work place, or began a different role, she was in a constant evaluation process to figure what was cumbersome, outdated, overrated or unnecessarily complex in that space, and how she then worked to eradicate those items or processes that failed to deliver results. She also mentioned that she expects her staff to identify these holdups as well and continues to listen carefully for possible process improvement ideas.

When you’re through changing, you’re through!

“I stole this one from Martha Stewart,” Knatz laughed, and then detailed how apt she was to take on her new demanding position at Port of LA in 2006, “I was comfortable where I was before,” she said, but then revealed if you don’t try then you will never know and that is greatest risk of all. She directed students and professionals in the room to get comfortable getting uncomfortable, because that is where the best personal and professional growth comes from.

Katz’s comments were then followed up by a brief discussion from Gina Marie Lindsey, and while the two professionals had different paths, the tone and experience from both of their paths were resoundingly similar.

 

Words to Live by from Gina Marie Lindsey

Gina Marie Lindsey
Gina Marie Lindsey

 

Much like Knatz, Gina Marie Lindsey, was recruited into her current position as the Director of Los Angeles World Airports in the most unassuming and disbelieving manner. She recalls taking the original recruitment call in her car in Washington DC in utter surprise. However, if you look at Lindsey’s record it is entirely clear why she was chosen among a nationwide pool of more than 70 candidates.

Mayor Villaraigosa and related officials selected Lindsey because of her vision and practical approach to inspiring organizational advancement. She is recognized in the transportation industry as a trailblazer and an innovator. She was one of the first women ever to head an airport when she became director of the Alaska International Airport System in 1989. She started in Alaska at the US Department of Transportation as an entry level Transportation Planner, and even at that time she found airports fascinating. “I’ve always though airports were the greatest challenge and the best combination of public sector and private sector expectations,” she remarked “You have to make all your own profits while facing public scrutiny,” and while most would shy away from such a daunting collision of responsibilities, Lindsey thrives in this environment. Similarly, we asked Lindsey, how she had guided her own success and what her essential rules were for continuing to rise and push herself in such a male dominated and complex field. She responded with the following guidelines for navigating the public sector world…

Question the system

“Question the system, often times it’s broken, it’s really important to recognize that your self-esteem and self-confidence should never be defined but what happens in the interview process. “ Lindsey, as well as Knatz, has been side tracked and side lined from professional advancement in the past and advised the students in the room to not let this be a source of discouragement from trying. Knowing that the organizations we are a part of are far from perfect, is fundamental to not wrapping ourselves in the doubt and potential failures of those spaces.

Entitlement is the enemy of success

Similarly, she remarked that “entitlement is not a word I like, and I know that I am responsible for my own fate.” Essentially, we are all controlling the magnitude of our own successes. Lindsey fully realizes that while she has always attempted growth and excellence, she has never expected things, positions or rewards in return for this commitment. As someone who has witnessed entitlement actively throughout many different organizations Lindsey has a clear point of view on how this attitude can hamper long term personal and organizational success.

Lean into something you don’t know

Lindsey actively encouraged us all to continue striving for growth through the unknown challenge or the next professional frontier.  “If you are not risk averse, and willing to lean in to something you don’t know… you can do anything.” She said this with such confidence that it rippled throughout the room with a profound effect and it occurred to me… here is a woman who has tried most everything in her career, and look where she is now. It gave a lot credence to the idea that despite a challenging job market, a changing policy world, and structural impediments to change, potential success is just around the corner and not to let the fear of new challenges or a misunderstanding of new innovation to control or hamper that success.

Advocate for Your Organization & for You

Like Knatz, Lindsey firmly believes in the power and potential of leveraging your organization’s capacity.  It is clear that she views her own success as a function of LAWA’s success and the reverse relationship as well. She also made it clear that within an organization sometimes you have to get stubborn and hold the line on what you believe in for that joint relationship of personal and organizational success. “Sometimes you need to question if it’s better to give in and live to fight another day, because you know that you can still bring value to the organization, or to walk away. Because if you don’t consistently stand for something than what have you become?” This complex relationship is a personal balance and set of choices that you can only make going forward but knowing about this potential conflict is important information for any young professional seeking work in the public sector.