Idaho Transportation

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Leadership strategies make transition from basketball
to director's office at ITD

"Brian has been a friend of Michigan State basketball for several years. He and I share the same passion for making good organizations better. I am sure that he will work hard to make the Idaho Transportation Department one of the best in the country."

– Michigan State University Men's Basketball Coach Tom Izzo

The strategies required for building one of the nation’s premier college basketball programs can be applied to achieving success in the corporate world and in the public sector.

Director Brian W. Ness wants to incorporate the principles he’s learned from a quarter-century relationship with Michigan State University basketball to build ITD into a national leader.

His vision for ITD is that it becomes the best transportation department in the country. To help it reach that status, Ness borrows liberally from the coaching philosophy of MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo.

Ness watched his Spartans bow out of the NCAA basketball tournament with a 52-50 loss to Butler University. While MSU fell short of its goal to become the national champion, losing in the semifinals leaves the team room for continued improvement.

That’s where ITD is, according to the new director. It has achieved significant success, but remains a program in progress. Comparing the department with teams in this year’s NCAA tournament bracket, Ness would put ITD in the second round, which would place the department among the top 10 percent of the DOTs nationally. It’s a great position to be in, the director said, but he wants ITD to continue progressing in the “bracket.”

Ness has been an MSU season ticket-holder the past 25 years, dating to the era of coach Jud Heathcote. Izzo picked up where Heathcote left off, maintaining MSU’s status as an elite NCAA basketball program. His teams advanced to the Final Four six times under Izzo. The Spartans left this year’s college tournament with a 28-9 season record.

ITD’s director was a regular at MSU’s Tipoff Café, where about 100 supporters gathered for dinner and coaches’ assessments before home games. It was there that Ness developed his leadership style – one that puts him in a position of a coach, and transportation department employees as team members.

"Brian has been a friend of Michigan State basketball for several years. He and I share the same passion for making good organizations better," Izzo said."I am sure that he will work hard to make the Idaho Transportation Department one of the best in the country."

As in college basketball, that quest begins with good personnel.

“Individually, a lot of people excel in this department and do a great job,” Ness said of his new ITD “team.’ “…We need to come together to make all of the other pieces fit into place. We have to believe in ourselves to reach the next level. “

With the level of scrutiny ITD has received the past year, the team needs to build a greater sense of confidence and pride to reach the next level, he says, comparing the department to “mid-major” basketball programs like Gonzaga University and Butler University. Like those programs, ITD competes well on the national stage, even though it doesn’t have the resources of larger programs, such as California, New York, and Florida.

“We can become a national leader if everyone is determined to work hard and together,” he added. “We’ll have to work hard to get there, and even harder to stay there when we get there,” he said. “I’m willing to put that big target on our back.”

Ness looks to Izzo’s success on the basketball court in developing his strategy for building ITD as the nation’s leader:

1) Everyone involved in the program is important to its overall success and shares in its success.

“Our front-line people are as important, or more important, to our success than people who work here on the second floor,” Ness insists. “It is important to treat all employees equally and with respect because each person has a role to play in the department’s overall success.”

2) Teams that operate in a player-coached system are better than those under a coach-coached team.

“It’s more effective to have employees taking responsibility for themselves and each other – coaching themselves, pushing each other to become better and calling each other out (privately) when they need to be called out.

“Yes, I could run all the maintenance operations from the second floor in Boise. That would be a coach-coached team. But it’s more effective for that to happen in the districts where the priorities should be set.”

3) The best teams are those that have internal competition at every position, a healthy drive for improvement that comes from teammates.

“It makes the team stronger when you have players pushing each other to become better,” Ness says.

“I think the each division needs to look at other divisions, and each district needs to look at other districts, and then determine to be better than the competition, just as I’m looking at other states and trying to become better than them.”

4) MSU basketball isn’t about winning games; it’s about winning championships.

“We need to take those steps – individual successes – to become a champion. But the goal is to be the best. I’ve set the bar very high for ITD. Ultimately the measure of our success is our overall achievement, not the small victories.

“I don’t think we can set the bar low so it’s easy to clear; we need to set the bar high enough that it forces us to become better… so it stretches us.”

“We are very good and are striving to get better – to become the best DOT in the country,” Ness said. “We can get there if everyone is committed to improvement and helping each other.”

Published 4-23-2010