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Empowering Exceptional with Former Houston Mayor Bill White

How have great leaders navigated past crises and what can we learn from them as we face the coronavirus pandemic? In this episode of Empowering Exceptional, we are joined by Houston’s former mayor Bill White, who led the city through three hurricanes and received national recognition for his efforts. Listen as Bill, the current chairman of Lazard Houston, shares his principles of successful leadership in a crisis, his advice for businesses navigating the pandemic, and more.

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A leader must be one who clearly articulates the goal that the community has in front of it and what the measures of success will be, and lets people know that there will be sacrifices on the way there.

Read more from our Coronavirus: Preparation & Response series on velaw.com.

 

Transcript:

Sean Becker:
Welcome back to Empowering Exceptional, a V&E+ podcast series focusing on fascinating people doing incredible things in their fields. I’m your host and also the head of V&E’s Employment Labor and OSHA practice, Sean Becker. Today we have the honor to be joined by Bill White, the former mayor of Houston.
In tough times such as the coronavirus pandemic we’re facing today, we turn to leaders who have demonstrated an ability to manage crises and leave behind lasting benefits for their communities. Few people fit that description better than Mayor White. Mayor White served three terms as Houston mayor from 2004 to 2010, and led the city through three hurricanes. During Hurricane Katrina, he led the city as it provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of evacuees, and received national recognition for his efforts. He is the recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award and the Governing Official of the Year Award from Governing Magazine.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Mayor White attended Harvard College and The University of Texas School of Law, where he was editor-in-chief of the Texas Law Review. He practiced law in Houston before serving as Deputy Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration. An experienced business leader, today Mayor White is the chairman of Lazard Houston.
Welcome.
Bill White:
Thanks, Sean. It’s great to be with you.
Sean Becker:
Also joining us today is my partner, Jim Thompson, the head of V&E’s global Litigation practice.
Jim Thompson:
Thank you, Sean. Mayor White, it’s great to have this opportunity to speak to you and to learn from your experiences handling crises. So let’s get right to it. As mayor of Houston, you led the city back from the devastation of three hurricanes. What principles did you follow during those difficult circumstances that could be applied to managing the coronavirus crisis today.
Bill White:
Any crisis requires both leadership and management. Now those things overlap, but they’re not always the same thing. A leader must be one who clearly articulates the goal that the community has in front of it and what the measures of success will be, and lets people know that there will be sacrifices on the way there. Then you have got to be a manager and a manager requires breaking up tasks into very granular parts, very specific all those things that are required to get to the ultimate goal. Finally, you need to assign the right people to undertake each task and hold them accountable.
Jim Thompson:
All right, so once you define the message and the goal that you’re focused on, how then do you get that message out?
Bill White:
You have to do it repeatedly. Just one email or one message is not enough. Crisis management requires the coordination of many individuals. It’s citizens that need to take action as well as professionals. It’s volunteers, it’s people that may range, as it did in the hurricane situation, from people providing housing to people providing medical care. So, the message should be clear and simple, often repeated. For example, in Katrina, we had an overall goal of treating our neighbors the way we would want to be treated and putting them on the road to self-sufficiency as soon as we could regardless of whether New Orleans would rebuild.
Jim Thompson:
And during Katrina, you were able to coordinate many individuals. You enlisted and built a coalition of public, private sector, faith-based communities all to come together for a shared effort. And how were you able to corral support from such a diverse constituency?
Bill White:
Well, the first thing I say is at least I did recognize that governmental apparatus alone was not enough. I had to look to wherever there was that had the sufficient capacity and organizational infrastructure to handle a task that was assigned on short notice and had severe deadlines. So for example, for the supply chains we needed to get everything from cots to furnishing, home furnishings, we enlisted the supply chain of Walmart and some other large, national corporations through hospitals, that we had emergency consultees that had 60,000 people sheltering in place. It was the major medical center institutions that set up virtual hospitals at those places. I individually asked those people to do it.
And finally, for one of the biggest tasks, which is finding apartments–rather than the tents or the trailers that were used in other parts of the country–but to find apartments, we had to go to over 600 apartment owners and create a program where they could quickly get people out of shelters on the way to living in an apartment.
Jim Thompson:
That’s remarkable and those certainly are leadership lessons that can be taken from that experience. It seems like these days one of the problems leaders face during a crisis is the spread of misinformation, particularly in this age of social media. What can leaders do to fight rumors and provide critical information to the public?
Bill White:
Well, the communication to the public needs to be current, updated, and factual. Spin is bad. You can’t either underestimate something or overestimate something. Sometimes it’s good to simply say, “We don’t know yet,” which is very difficult for many CEO’s or people who are, you know, governors or presidents or the like, because then they know they may be criticized. But you’re not expected to be omniscient. Once you’ve built credibility however, then you can get people to trust you, and trust is a very important part of trying to get a large number of people working as a team together.
Jim Thompson:
I agree with you completely. So do you have a role model in that regard?
Bill White:
There’s a little book out that’s called Winston Churchill’s Wartime Leadership and it indicates the four important principles that Churchill used during World War II during that time in 1940 when he rallied a nation when it was virtually alone in what seemed to be insuperable odds. He defined an objective clearly as being victory. He let people know that there would be sacrifices. He was constantly communicating with the people concerning what was happening, much of it was bad. And when mistakes were made, he admitted those mistakes. He broke the task into parts, he assigned the right people to the task and replaced them if they were not up to it. Then, from that experience, he built credibility so that people did not give up.
Jim Thompson:
And looking now at our current leaders and our current challenges, what advice would you give to Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, today?
Bill White:
Well, you know, I do talk to our mayor from time to time. And the previous mayor and the substance of that conversation, I’ll maintain in confidence. But look, when it comes to matters like pandemic, both the mayor has a responsibility but it is a national and truly international phenomena. And a mayor, governor, president, prime minister, king, whatever, should pay a lot of attention to the science and health professionals who deal with epidemiology and epidemics. They have to temper some of that advice with a need to understand that there’s also a need to minimize some of the economic damage. If a person gets sick, that’s a tragedy and we want to limit that.
So you want to factual statements. You want to contain the spread of the virus but at the same time you need to make common sense judgments. The world will never be free of risk. Every time we get on a highway there’s a risk. And he has to balance the economic impact with the health impact.
Jim Thompson:
So, Mayor, as you look at the various government responses that are dealing with this coronavirus crisis, both domestically and around the world, is there a particular country, city, or state that’s handled it that you think should be emulated?
Bill White:
Well we could all learn from Taiwan, that was so close and has extremely close trade relations with China where the spread of the virus originated. And they did testing immediately of all people disembarking on international flights and monitoring international flights more quickly than many other countries did and as a result have been able to contain the spread. South Korea did have exposure in the early stages, there was an unfortunate exception to the rule that the government made. But they responded very quickly and they have had extensive testing. In fact, far more extensive testing in South Korea than in the mighty United States. I think those countries have done fairly well.
You have the opposite situation in Iran, where information was not shared with the public. The government was slow to respond, and as a result, it’s hard to determine the individuals that need to be quarantined because it’s so extant in the overall community.
Jim Thompson:
So Mayor, turning from the public sector response to the private sector, this is obviously a challenging time with the economic downturn. And where you sit as, as Chairman of Lazard Houston and with your experience in the private sector, what do you think the biggest challenge is business will face? And how should they react?
Bill White:
Well, obviously it depends on firm by firm. The businesses that they are in, it’s had a profound impact as you know on the energy business which is so important to Houston and where Vinson & Elkins has a global leading practice. That first, people should react quickly, the senior management should react quickly. We are in recession. It might not be official under the statistics lag for six to eight weeks on various leading indicators of economic activity. But we will be in a recession for at least a couple of quarters. That will affect all, you know, virtually all businesses.
They need to get, like, at the liquidity situation and they need, many businesses will need to call for some sacrifices. It needs to begin in the C-suite. For some businesses that are struggling, then the folks that are at the top and middle managers should know that they may have to take a temporary pay cut with those most highly compensated taking the most cut. That gives people credibility when asking the line employees to change shift schedules and other things that may be done that are to maintain the capacity of the firm when it comes out of the recession.
Jim Thompson:
So, Mayor, what about legal challenges. Vinson and Elkins, of course, is engaged in helping clients right now sort through a number of legal issues that have arisen in the face of this crisis. In your view, what are some of the biggest legal issues that businesses will be facing in the days and months ahead?
Bill White:
Well, a large variety of businesses are faced with potential breaches of contractual obligations whether they be loan or debt covenants, leases, take or pay contracts, orders from suppliers that have difficulty with their own supply chain. People need to seek legal counsel but they also need to exercise good business judgment. This is a time when the firms that can afford to do so could build some long-term customer relationships by being understanding of the situation that their customers are in, that their lessees are in.
Similarly to our creditors, particularly bank creditors. Hopefully with some help from the Fed, there needs to be some reasonable forbearance if they want to preserve those long-term customer relationships. And in turn, companies should remember and tell people that they will remember the firms and companies who helped them and gave them a break during this downturn.
Jim Thompson:
Mayor, you also have valuable experience in the federal government as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy. Are there any experiences from your tenure in the Energy Department that you think are relevant to today’s crises?
Bill White:
Well before I served there, there was an experience that was seared into my memory when I was studying the global energy industry at the same time that there was an embargo of the United States and Netherlands in 1973. Certain countries in Persian Gulf imposed an embargo on oil but the fact of the matter was that the oil was traded from place to place and the oil imports into the United States did not materially diminish.
Nonetheless, there was a lesson there because people panicked when they heard that there was an embargo then everybody filled up their tanks all at once and the amount of storage that you had in the gasoline tanks of trucks and automobiles was capped off. That in turn caused the service stations to run out of gasoline and diesel fuel. That in turn caused even greater panic as somebody, every time they would pass a service station if they had three quarters of a tank of gas they would stand in line to top it off again. So the, the one thing I will say is listen carefully to the leaders but don’t panic. We have a resilient country, we have a resilient world.
Jim Thompson:
I remember those long gas lines. I recall being able to buy only on odd or even numbered days, depending on the number of your license plate. You know one thing I’ve been thinking about as this has unfolded the last couple of weeks is the fact that we’re changing our behaviors as a society. Of course by necessity, but we’re working more remotely. We’re engaging in what’s now been called “social distancing.” And we’re traveling a lot less if at all. So, Mayor, in your view, are any of these going to change permanently?
Bill White:
There is a change that is undergoing in all businesses, and I think that change can be accelerated. And that change I’m thinking about is that we’re using digital tools now to communicate and do business in a way that was technologically not possible, uh, 10, 15, 20 years ago. Look, I believe in face-to-face meetings, and they do have a role but often there’s communication that can occur through digital means, by conference calls. Now more than ever, people are familiar with Skype, Zoom, and the various online type of programs and apps you can use to communicate to somebody in an efficient manner. I think this will be an impetus to work efficiently.
Similarly, for employers I think the idea of the telecommuting and off-peak hours for commuting needs to be seriously considered and implemented and this will be a test of that. I know as, I’ll tell you what, as Mayor of Houston I worked a lot on traffic as you may recall and one of our great victories is convincing a number of firms that were employment centers along congested areas to have staggered work shifts or to encourage people to work from home a couple of hours a day in order to relieve the traffic and improve the life of all their employees.
When an employer does have a workforce that’s not in their cubicle, they’re necessarily forced to consider measures of productivity other than the hours in cubicle and that’s a good thing.
Jim Thompson:
So, Mayor, at times like these, what is the measure of a great leader?
Bill White:
The measure of a great leader is to get a large number of people all pulling their oar in the same direction and also giving vision of what awaits them at the end of, uh, the time of sacrifice. I think that we can do that. People are resilient, they bounce back. Houston and our nation has been through tough times before. You remember how so many people, over 100,000 people, including me, were displaced by floodwaters during the Hurricane Harvey. That is something that was not a one in a generation event but which had been described to me over 50 inches of rain in four and a half days is something that was not scientifically possible. We survived that, we got back on our feet, and within a relatively short period of time our economy moved on.
Yes, there was human suffering, but we will get past this as we’ve been through other crises in the past.
Jim Thompson:
That’s a great message of resilience and a great way to end the this. Thank you so much for your time, Mayor White. Great speaking to you.
Bill White:
Great to be with you guys.
Sean Becker:
Thank you for joining us for this edition of Empowering Exceptional. I’m Sean Becker and please join us next time for another episode. And in the meantime, Vinson and Elkins remains committed to assisting our clients and our communities navigate the legal implications that may rise from the effects of the Coronavirus and the economic downturn. Please visit our Coronavirus: Preparation and Response page on our website for a list of resources and contacts we hope will be helpful and that we will continue to supplement.