Exit interview

(Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Fusion)

By Lindsey Wahowiak

Fusion Editor

Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the author in Granholm's office.

The last eight years have been tumultuous ones in Michigan, and perhaps no one knows that better than Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Since her election in 2002, Granholm has been forced to acknowledge the state’s annual billion-dollar deficits, nationally increased focus on homeland security and a tanking economy. During that time, she says she’s tried to “steer into the wind” and confront each issue as it came up.

The Canadian-born, University of California Berkeley- and Harvard-educated attorney has always been one to take a challenge head-on, from being elected Michigan’s first female attorney general and governor, to serving on President Barack Obama’s transition team after his election. She’s also a wife and mother of three active children.

Granholm’s tenure in the governor’s office has been marked by difficulties: The state plummeted into poverty as American automakers went broke. And though she boasted a “go-anywhere, do-anything” attitude to bring foreign jobs to Michigan, Granholm has been criticized for not doing enough to help the state’s out-of-work employees. She also was rumored to be on the short list for a spot in the Obama cabinet and Supreme Court, though neither

position was offered.

Despite all that, Granholm maintains her stance as Michigan residents’ advocate — for jobs, for education and for economic stability. While meeting with Fusion in her office in Lansing’s Romney Building, Granholm was energetic, straightforward and optimist about Michigan’s future. She shared what it’s been like to try to right the ship of state government, and what residents can look forward to in the future.

FUSION: We’re taking a look at women in business, so what can you tell us about what it’s been like to run the biggest business in the state: Michigan government?

GRANHOLM: Clearly, being CEO of a $40-plus billion organization with over 50,000 employees, obviously at a time when things are very challenging has been a great privilege and a great challenge. There’s no doubt that Michigan’s been in an unprecedented transformation moving from one economy to another, and managing both state government as an organization as well as being responsible to our customers, the citizens of Michigan, in the middle of this turmoil, has been a tremendous, tremendous challenge and opportunity for me, personally. But the organization itself, if you’re talking about business, we’ve really had to do a huge amount of what the business community has done, to try to lead through change. So, (we focused on) downsizing, restructuring, leveraging technology to be able to serve Michigan.

Since I’ve been governor, there have been a couple of organizations that have evaluated state governments and compared them to one another, all 50. And the Pew Center on the States and Governing Magazine, which compares for management, has ranked Michigan in the top three or four states two times in a row because of our ability to manage through change, even though it’s been very, very difficult. We are dealing with 45-year lows in terms of revenues to the state. I’ve cut departments by 25 percent, cut over 300 boards, commissions and agencies. State employees, who we are again at the bargaining table with, have given $650 million worth of concessions. …

Michigan’s government as an entity, our structure was set up in the ‘60s. I’m sure it was fine when it was set up, but the world has changed so much. We need to turn it in and get a new, sleeker model of state government that is more efficient and leverages technology better.

Because we have had such a phenomenal head of our Department of Information Technology (Ken Theis), our ability to reach citizens through technology has given us the designation as the most technically advanced state government in the nation. We’ve been repeatedly found to be the top by the Center for Digital Government and Governing Magazine, because we recognize the possibility and the opportunity of citizens being able to access 24/7 government, and making it more efficient that way.

Obviously you’ll always need to have state employees to be able to serve our most vulnerable families. … You’ll always have to have people in nursing homes, or in state homes, making sure that people are cared for. You’ll always have to have state government that is “high-touch,” but having state government that is high-tech is extremely important in reducing the cost and improving efficiency.

Our desire has been to eliminate the bureaucracy associated with permitting, and any interaction with state government that businesses have to take on. What we want to do is to set up a one stop-shop for businesses. Anybody setting up a small business, wanting to pay their taxes, can go into our business one-stop shop and do any of the hundreds of transactions that someone might have to engage in with state government, whether it’s getting a permit, getting a business permit changed, you name it; it’s all through our one-stop shop, and we’ve assigned an ombudsman to make it extremely simple to interact with state government. And second, with respect to citizens, we’ve allowed them, through our Helping Hand Web site (www.michigan.gov/helpinghand), to see what they’re eligible for, in terms of state benefits. So if somebody wants to get onto the unemployment system, they can do it online. If they want to renew their benefits, they can do it online. If they want to see if they’re eligible for Medicaid … sign up for food assistance, (it’s all there).

So any process that can be automated, we are continually improving. All of that is to say that we are striving in a state that’s been historically considered a “rust belt” state – we’re transforming the inside and the outside of the state, moving from the rust belt to the green belt.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your term as governor, and what advice would you give to other business owners facing similar challenges?

GRANHOLM: The biggest challenges have been moving people through change. It’s very difficult when change is upon us, but recognizing that the world has changed, and transitioning people into the new world, is by far the biggest challenge. Whether that’s state employees inside of the organization or whether it’s your customers — if you will, Michigan citizens — Michigan’s economy has changed. It’s difficult for people to recognize that we’re not changing back. So, making sure that you’re able to transform citizens through this economic change, making sure that you’re able to transform state government, and the pockets of resistance that naturally occur whenever change is brought to bear. That’s the toughest thing.

You have to be completely and brutally honest about the fact that change is here. And you have to, in fact, steer into the wind. Sometimes you have to become that thing you most fear, and address that change and fear head-on.

In Michigan, because of our automotive industry, we have often feared international competition. So instead of being afraid of competing, our motto on the economy has been to go anywhere and do anything to bring jobs to Michigan. So instead of seeing our jobs go to Asia or China or India, why not go to those places and bring those jobs providers here to Michigan? That’s steering into the wind, to become inviting to that competition. The auto industry has historically resisted increased fuel efficiency, the CAFE standards that have been fought for years. Instead of fighting it, lead! And so now Michigan is going to become a leader in producing vehicles that are electric, that are completely energy-efficient so we can lead world in energy independence, rather than being viewed as luddites, as the anchor.

We have to, and any business has to, recognize what’s your biggest threat, and how to steer right into it and not just embrace the threat but become and respond directly to the thing that has most threatened your existence.

Who are some of your female role models in government and

business?

GRANHOLM: I’m a great fan of Hillary Clinton. She’s tough, and no-nonsense, and understands the importance of working in a bipartisan fashion to get things done.

I think that, I know that I have to say, one of my role models that I’ve often said, even though she’s not in business or government is my mom (Shirley). She’s so no-nonsense. She’s got a great sense of humor but she is the most frugal person around. Those lessons of frugality have certainly been important for us here in state government. The idea of leading by example is something my mom always taught me.

In business there’s a great, first person who comes to mind, her name is Ann Marie Sastry. … (CEO and cofounder of Sakti3, an automotive battery engineering company). She’s professor at the University of Michigan who has spun off her business and has become an entrepreneur. The idea of taking on a great idea and taking on the risk of becoming an entrepreneur, I really admire her courage that’s associated with that. She’s a woman in an all-male business, because her business is generation-two lithium ion batteries. She’s been in charge of a section of the engineering department at U-M. To be a woman in a traditional male field like engineering, in a traditionally male sector like automotive, to be able to take the further risk of starting your own business, of striking out on your own, I really admire that courage and that resolve.

On that note, you’re a woman in what’s certainly a male-dominated business: State government. So after your term ends, what are the chances we’ll see another female governor in Michigan? And who might it be?

GRANHOLM: We’ll have to see who runs. There’s certainly Alma Wheeler Smith who’s running for governor. She’s declared, but no other woman has declared. I do think that in general women are pragmatists. I don’t want to stereotype, but often women are great multi-taskers, not so worried about who gets the credit but worried about getting things done. I think that’s why women make great leaders. They haven’t been given as much of a chance as men, obviously, but I think as more come into power, in government and in business, certainly people have recognized our abilities in the judiciary. I think it becomes less of a story, and more of an understanding. I also think women often are less susceptible to the personal temptations that men have experience in leadership. I think that’s a thing, you don’t need ethics challenges on top of running an organization in a challenging environment. I just think, for women, that’s much less of an issue, and I think it’s something for voters to consider.

My last question: What will you do once you’re done in the governor’s office?

GRANHOLM: I don’t know.

Really? You haven’t even thought about it?

GRANHOLM: Oh yeah, I’ve thought about it, and I’ll be fine. But what I’ve thought about most, really, is how we can get as much done as possible in this short time that I’ve got left.

Granholm highlighted some of her “to-do” list during her State of the State address in early February. She said in the coming months, the state must pass a balanced budget on time (something the state has failed to do twice in the past three years), reform government so jobs and education become the focus and continue to bring jobs to Michigan.

She said that she believes six new sectors of business will all need to flourish in order to keep Michigan afloat. Granholm hopes to encourages businesses to set up shop in Michigan, focusing on clean energy, like solar and wind power; life sciences, such as bio-economy and medical devices; advanced manufacturing, including nanotechnology and robotics; film; tourism and homeland security and defense.

It’s an ambitious plan — especially when many of the key decision-makers will be campaigning for election, and some campaigning against her own track record. However, Granholm remains focused on the possibilities of her last year in office.

“Everything we do in these next 11 months should be linked to the economic plan we have followed these seven years: Diversifying the economy; educating our people and protecting citizens in a time of transition,” she said. “With your commitment and mine, and by the grace of God, let us go forth.”

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