Leading Without Power

Executives like Phillip Jones and Lee Jackson have the top spot but not the last say. What to do when your title doesn’t befit your duties.

TOURISM DUTY: Phillip Jones, photographed at the Meyerson Symphony Center, has reshaped
the once struggling DCVB. photography by Jeremy Sharp

The top title carries a lot of prestige, but in some settings, those fancy titles don’t empower the holder to do whatever he wants. How do you get things done when you’re a CEO who can’t just fire off orders?

Interestingly, the first answers weren’t what I expected. “Bring a fresh perspective,” says Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, a comment echoed by Lee Jackson, former Dallas County judge who’s now chancellor of the University of North Texas System.

Jones arrived at the DCVB when it was torn apart by scandal and poor financial practices. As secretary for tourism for the state of Louisiana, Jones didn’t come out of the convention side of the business, so he looked at the CVB and asked, “Why are tourism and conventions separate, and why are we ignoring Dallas as a tourism and leisure destination?” The latter is the faster growing segment. To elevate tourism as a priority, he merged tourism with convention sales, giving equal priority to selling Dallas as a visitor and meeting destination.

Lee Jackson arrived at UNT with a reputation of being a meticulous and farsighted planner, only to be told by many people, “You can’t do that here. Universities can’t plan.” Jackson says he realized that UNT’s campuses needed to be “more focused and more planning-oriented because the national landscape is changing and state expectations were, too.” Instead of automatic federal and state funding for student grants and loans, research projects, and classroom teaching, the state and national authorities have shifted costs to families. Naturally, those families wonder, as Jackson says, “what they’re getting for their money, what their options are, and where they can get the best undergraduate education. We need to understand that changing landscape and be ahead of it, not just react to it.”

Not surprising, both Jones and Jackson reached out to find allies. When Jones came to Dallas from running the Department of Tourism, he took the unprecedented step of calling his counterpart in Fort Worth. “I said, ‘Our competition is San Antonio and Houston. Let’s work together.’” Now Dallas and Fort Worth have a booth together at industry trade shows around the country. (To get an idea of the impact of this, Jones says, “It was like the Berlin Wall came down. Everyone was whispering and pointing, ‘Wow, Dallas and Fort Worth are here together!’”)

Jackson, who raised the bar very high as a Dallas County executive who had a reputation for consensus building, found he was looking across a new landscape and had to find administrators and faculty who could be first-class practitioners in UNT’s traditional departments but could also respond to change and look for new areas of opportunity.

“Remember,” he says, “universities are organized like ancient medieval guilds, with all the focus on departments, not on the institution. The structure was not designed to be responsive to the economy but rather to protect academic freedom in the disciplines from tyrannical popes, kings, communists, and tyrants—which it does pretty well. Whether it can adapt fast enough to keep up with the rapidly changing modern economy is another question.”

Jones says persistence is the key; Jackson adds, “Patience is a leadership skill,” and notes it took him a year before he found himself with broad and deep enough relationships to move forward with an agenda for the future.

“I was spoiled by being in an environment where I knew the issues well and had built up credibility,” Jackson admits,  adding, “It was humbling at mid-career to go into an new environment where my past credentials didn’t count for much and where I had to start over to earn trust and credibility.”

Besides patience and persistence, showing genuine respect was a key theme in Jones’ and Jackson’s remarks. When Jones talks about the staff of the CVB and the 40-person board, he speaks with genuine affection—no hint that this might be an unwieldy governance structure.
 
Peter Kline, head of Seneca Advisors and past chair of the CVB, says Jones is effective because he leads by example. Jones never misses an opportunity to promote Dallas. Before, when CVB staff traveled to woo a potential convention, the city’s representatives used to make the sales call and come right back. Jones makes a point to see the travel press in whatever city he’s visiting, and he challenges them to take a fresh look at Dallas. The result has been positive press about the city in publications like the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post,  and others.

Work ethic is part of leading by example. Jones, who runs marathons and Ironman triathlons, and Jackson are described as the hardest working people in the city, partly because their jobs never end. “Evening” simply means they’re attending another meeting, giving a speech, or listening to someone else talk.

Neither Jones or Jackson feels comfortable describing their own presence, but aides say both are very unpretentious. Jones, who took over the Louisiana Tourism department at age 32, arrived for his first day on the job in a Saturn, and a guard refused to let him park in the department head’s spot. 

Jackson travels between the UNT System’s three main campuses in Denton, Fort Worth, and Dallas. I caught up with him at a new UNT System office in downtown Dallas at the Universities Center of Dallas, the spiffed-up space that still undeniably feels like what it is: a former Joske’s department store. Jackson points to UNT’s plans and an architect’s drawing of the area as a downtown campus extension across from a beautiful park, with the former municipal building at Main and Harwood as a public law school.

Not everyone was enamored of his idea to purchase an expansion site away from the main campus and his attitude that if the downtown site was going to exist, it should live up to its potential. But another component to leadership in these unique environments is not to take criticism personally. Jackson was initially viewed as a surprising choice as chancellor because he didn’t come out of an academic setting. He didn’t let it bother him.

Of course, when you succeed, word gets around. The University of North Texas System has chalked up impressive progress under Jackson. The UNT Denton campus is the state’s fourth-largest, and its new engineering college is doing well on a first-class, beautiful campus. UNT’s health science center in Fort Worth is booming and attracting corporate research partners. The southern Dallas County campus is growing steadily, and the new downtown programs give the UNT System a growing regional identity.

Over at the CVB, Dallas has a new slogan, the attention of meeting planners and the nation’s travel press, significantly increased city funds due to increased occupancy taxes, room bookings up 35%, an extra half-billion dollars contributed to the city’s economy, a ranking as one of the top 10 meetings destinations, a clean financial statement, and big convention wins, such as beating out Orlando and Las Vegas as the site for the 2012 meeting for the Association of Association Executives—a “Superbowl” of meetings.

Jones and Jackson are both quick to parcel out credit broadly, insisting that they may have worked hard but that many people deserve credit for the successes.

When I worked for President Ronald Reagan, he had a plaque on his desk to which he pointed often. It read, “There’s no amount of good you can accomplish if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” He was right. Real leaders can get a lot done in any setting.

Merrie Spaeth is one of the pre-eminent crisis management strategists in the world. After serving as President Ronald Reagan’s director of media relations at the White House, she founded Dallas-based Spaeth Communications in 1987. In addition to her duties as president, Merrie is a lecturer at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.

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