Utah Policy Genius Panel: Mentors Who Made a Difference

blue 01Tell us about a political or professional mentor, or someone you admire, who has influenced you or positively impacted your life.

Gov. Mike Leavitt. My Father, Dixie Leavitt, was an important business mentor.  I was 21 years old and needed to earn money for college.  Dad pointed out a newspaper ad inviting bids to haul garbage from Forest Service campgrounds.  He said, “Why don’t you make your own job?  Start a business and bid on that contract?” 

On a pad of paper, I made a step-by-step list of things I would need to do.  I showed Dad the list.  He added a few thoughts but mostly encouraged me.  Within weeks, I had formed a garbage hauling business, took out a loan, bought a truck and had hired my two younger brothers to help me.  (I made it clear that I was management, they were labor.)

I operated the business for two years.  Yes, we made a profit, but more importantly, it made an entrepreneur out of me.  Good mentoring changed the course of my life. 

I had great mentors in politics too.  Jake Garn trusted me to manage his campaign at age 28.  For nearly a decade he stretched me and taught me.  Then, at just the right moment he encouraged me.  It was his trust that gave me the confidence to run for governor in 1992.  Mentors matter.   

Justin Harding, chief of staff, governor’s office. Senator Bennett’s death has caused me to reflect on some of the political mentors in my life, chief among them former Representative Jim Hansen.  Jim was drawn into politics because he wanted to fix Farmington’s water system. He didn’t get into politics because he wanted a job, but because he had a cause, words that he would emblazon on our hearts and minds: “Get involved because you have a cause, not because you want a job.”  Jim was also never concerned about credit, and he was a workhorse on behalf of our beloved state, not a showhorse.

When I was appointed to serve as Gov. Gary Herbert’s Chief of Staff (a man who shares much in common with Jim), one of the first calls I made was to my old friend, mentor, and first boss, Representative Jim Hansen.  It was a tender conversation with a man I hold in the highest of regard.  I am indebted to him for his friendship and support over the course of the last nearly 17 years.

Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. At a critical moment in my career, Lynne Ward (executive director of the Utah Education Savings Plan and former state budget director) taught me the value of setting high standards and holding people accountable. She was my boss. I went to her with a personnel problem where I was going to split the difference with the employee and accept marginal performance. Lynne urged me to be strong and expect more. It was the right choice. Public service should be exceptional, not marginal. 

Mike Mower, deputy chief of staff, governor’s office. I’ve been interested in policy and politics since I was a young child growing up in Ferron, Utah.  My parents would host cottage meetings for candidates in their home because they were civic minded — and also so that I could meet elected officials personally. 

One who stopped by our house in the mid-1980’s was Howard C. Nielson.  He spent an hour visiting with me in our living room.  Nielson was later elected to Congress.  Whenever he was passing through Emery County, he would take the time to contact and visit with me. Later I had the chance to serve as an intern for him in his District Office and as a legislative assistant in his D.C. Office.  Congressman Nielson had a photographic mind.  He was a statistician by training and would delve into the smallest of details on every piece of legislation that came before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  He later voluntarily left Congress so that he and his wife, Julie, could serve an LDS mission in the outback of Australia.  He then came back to Utah and served a term in the State Senate.  He truly showed it is not where you serve – but how.  

Dan Liljenquist, former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate. Bob Bennett has been one of my prized political mentors over the years, beginning in 1997 when I served as an intern in his Washington office.  I had the privilege of observing him work up close, watching how he effortlessly connected with his colleagues and thoughtfully considered all sides of each issue before firmly deciding the direction he would go.  Bob taught me through his example that kindness, civility and charity are the hallmarks of great men and the greatest of statesmen.  He was the consummate gentleman, and I never heard him speak an unkind word, even about those who maligned and rebuked him.

Bob and I had our policy disagreements, but — largely to his credit — our discussions never became disagreeable.  He respected me, and I respected him.  It is precisely because we often disagreed that I appreciated his mentorship.  I will miss Bob’s dazzling intellect.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  Bob could do this, and he not only functioned, but also excelled.  I am grateful for such a generous mentor.  I will miss him.”

Maura Carabello, policy and communications guru and owner of the Exoro Group. I suspect there will be much written about nice, understanding, gracious mentors. I want to pay homage to my SOB mentor…who in his unfairness, demanding – take no excuses – approach, taught me lessons I use every day.   His style also provoked thoughtful consideration of how to pass these lessons along but perhaps in a different way. He’s likely reading this…and, yes, I’m talking about you.

Questionable approach; great lessons, here are a few:

“I thank you every two weeks with a paycheck.” Lesson: Don’t solely rely on others for validation, look within.

“I don’t care if they said no, I’m looking for a yes…. go back and get one.” Lesson:  don’t take NO for an answer…you’ll get a lot more YESES with this approach.

“When I ask you what time it is, don’t tell me how to fix a grandfather clock.” Lesson: get to your point. Really.

“Why? Why? Why?” Lesson: Be prepared to be able to explain why you made the choices you made, do it often enough and you will always have a good case for support. 

When he gave an assignment: “I’m not going to walk you through this, or tell you what to do — figure it out yourself”.  Round two: Here’s the correction, approach, the hints and experience added (which begged the question of my 24-year-old brain…why the hell couldn’t we have started with that). Lesson: embrace critical thinking, embrace the unknown, be fearless – it’s not about right or wrong but rather creative, deliberate thinking and developing your gut (and ability to Google).  You will no longer fear what you don’t know, but rather just move into creating something you can defend… so when it is edited you understand the value of your act of fearless creation as the genesis.

Boyd Matheson, president, Sutherland Institute and former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee. Our connection was far from coincidental and, for me, beyond providential. As a young and hungry basketball player, I saw a T-shirt that read, “DEADLY – Souvall’s Basketball Camp – Where skill is a success.” I didn’t understand it, but I instinctively knew it was what I needed. 

I found Souvall in the phone book, called and was forever changed.George Souvall never coached me in a single basketball game, not even a scrimmage. He did, however, put me through countless hours of drills – each designed with a specific athletic skill to develop, each accentuated with a life lesson. Every bounce of the ball, plant, pivot, box-out, block, and free throw were peppered with messages of character, resilience, perspective, creativity, strategy, commitment and even compassion. All were driven by his unbridled and passionate pursuit of excellence.

His Greek immigrant heritage and his edifying belief in the ability and capacity of people (a lesson in itself) gave power to his oft-repeated principles and memorable phrases. His words have echoed down the years of my life with the rhythm of a ball bouncing on the hardwood and the swish of the perfect shot. Throughout my life, Coach Souvall’s lessons have found their way into corporate boardrooms around the world, in the marbled halls of DC and, most importantly, in living room conversations with my children.

Bob Bernick, longtime journalist and Utah Policy contributing editor. As a working journalist all my life, naturally mentors and folks I looked up to would be in that field. And in covering politicians for most of my life, there are a few that I actually came to admire.

The journalists would be people most of today’s leaders would not recognize. But I’ll list a few for the heck of it. Lou Bate was a classic city editor at the Deseret News; gruff, hard-nosed and exacting. DeAnn Evans was the managing editor there for a time before she went off to teach journalism at the U of U. She was a wonderful mentor to many young reporters and editors – and had a great sense of humor, which I’ve found invaluable in real newspapering.

Two politicians that I came to admire for various reasons were former House speakers Nolan Karras and Marty Stephens. In the tough political world of the Utah Legislature, these guys really did try to do what was best for the state, while playing politics as little as possible. And among the top staffers of the Legislature, Mike Christensen, John Fellows and Jonathan Ball have always played straight with me, as have chiefs of staffs Ric Cantrell and Greg Hartley – even when it probably wasn’t always in their bosses’ best interests – because political considerations can sometimes cloud even the best intentions by elected officials.

In covering the Legislature, governors and congressmen and women for nearly 40 years in Utah could, I suppose, make some cynical. But on the whole, Utah politicians are honest folks who are trying to do the best they can.

Derek B. Miller, World Trade Center Utah President, and former gubernatorial chief of staff. I’ve been lucky and grateful to work closely with Gov. Gary Herbert for much of my professional life.  As anyone who knows the Governor would attest to, he is not your typical politician.  He doesn’t play political games.  He doesn’t participate in the political rumor mill.  And he doesn’t engage in petty political partisanship.  What Governor Herbert DOES is consider differing viewpoints, involve others in policy deliberations, and puts principles above politics.  He’s also one heck of a nice guy. 

Everyone who interacts with Governor Herbert, even those who disagree with his policies, comes away with that realization – he is a genuinely nice person.  That shines through in the single characteristic that I admire most about the Governor – he cares about people.  I can’t count the number of times – when debating public policy, building a budget, and in daily decision-making – I have heard the Governor ask the question “What is the RIGHT thing to do for the people of Utah?”  This is not said at a press conference for the benefit of the cameras, but in private meetings, with all sincerity, to keep himself and his staff focused on the true purpose of public service.

Mark Bouchard, CBRE Utah, Senior Managing Director, Southwest Region, and education leader. I was greatly influenced early in my professional career by Peter Thomas, President of Valley Bank of Nevada. Peter’s family along with the family of Jerome Mack owned and operated in partnership Valley Bank of Nevada.

Peter was a lawyer by education, who after school began his banking career in the family banking business. Two of E. Parry Thomas’s son’s Peter and Tom, also an attorney both went to work for their father. Peter was someone that once he believed in you, an opportunity to be challenged was around the corner.

Peter’s values were based on a fundamental belief that knowledge, the desire for the constant acquiring of knowledge, coupled with experience and a strong work ethic led to outstanding outcomes for clients and employees of our bank.

The principles I learned from Peter as a young banker have been core to the various roles I’ve held in leadership. Work hard, empower others, always have a desire to learn new things and be competitive. I’ll always be grateful to Peter, Tom and the Thomas & Mack families for the many things they taught me at a young age. Most importantly for their belief in me and the opportunity they provided me to succeed.

Andrew Gruber, executive director, Wasatch Front Regional Counsel. (Before coming to Utah, Andrew practiced law in Chicago and then worked for the Regional Transportation Authority in Chicago.) After nearly 50 years in the practice of law, my mentor and friend Julian D’Esposito is retiring. Julian is the exemplar of what a lawyer should be, and I just hope that I absorbed some of his guidance. Julian’s practice focused on representing governmental entities; he has in countless ways advanced their honorable mission of serving their communities and constituents.

He approaches the world and his work with intellectual curiosity and rigor. He is humble and treats everyone with whom he interacts with respect, whether they are from the public or private sector, Republican or Democrat, the greatest or the least among us. He is the most skilled legislative draftsman I have ever known; he taught me not to settle for good enough, but to think and challenge and try again, until there was certainty of achieving the intended result – not just today, but also to carefully consider potential consequences in the future. He showed me that at best, a lawyer is a counselor rather than merely a technician. When I left Mayer Brown to become General Counsel for the Regional Transportation Authority, he was my most valued advisor. Above all, Julian is a kind man, with a ready smile, a keen wit, and a steady hand. He is among the finest people I know, and on this occasion of his retirement, I am proud to say that I worked with and learned from this great man.

Val Oveson, former state auditor, lieutenant governor, National Taxpayer Advocate. Charles Rossotti was an incredible boss and mentor. He served as the first non-technical Commissioner of the IRS. He came to the IRS after founding and building American Management Systems, which had become one of the largest supplier of computer systems to the federal government before his appointment by President Clinton. He was one of Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids,” that he brought in from the RAND Corporation; most were Harvard MBAs, that he brought into the Pentagon in the sixties.

From the start, I knew he was special when he called me every day to give me an update during the three months it took to get me through the White House personnel office. His ability to communicate was incredible. He could communicate one on one and with large organizations equally as well. He used every device at his disposal, voice mail, email, town hall meetings and the in-house IRS TV network, he was always communicating. He provided vision and optimism to an organization that needed to heal from the mid-nineties assault on the IRS by the Congress and the public. I learned a great deal from him about politics, patience, leadership, communications and intensity. I enjoyed serving under him as the National Taxpayer Advocate during a very interesting time in the nation’s history.