The Primitive Podcast: Clay Johnson

Posted by The Prim Pack | April 30, 2020

The Primitive Podcast: Clay Johnson

It’s not often we’re able to rub elbows with a personal friend of one of the most powerful people in the world. But when we sat down with Clay Johnson, close friend and advisor to President George W Bush, we uncovered how universal many principles of leadership truly are. 



Kade Wilcox (00:00):

Hi guys. Kade Wilcox here, host of The Primitive Podcast. In this week's episode we have Clay Johnson joining us. Clay Johnson has a fascinating story. Grew up in Fort worth, Texas. Ended up going to Andover, a private school in Connecticut with George W. Bush. And long story short, I ended up serving alongside him for 16 years. All the way through George W's governorship, and then obviously in the presidency. He was in charge of many things like transition plans and presidential personnel. It's just a fascinating story, but probably the most interesting thing to me about the podcast is just listening to Clay's different leadership insights and not only his own personal years of experience being a leader, but being around leaders like George W. and others who obviously were some of the most critical leaders on the world stage. So hope you enjoy this episode and as always, thank you for listening.

Kade Wilcox (01:15):

Clay, thanks so much for joining us. I'm really excited to have you on our show. I was actually running a couple of weeks ago thinking through different guests that I could have on the podcast and a lightning bolt hit me that I should reach out to you and ask if you'd be willing to come on. And I'm thrilled that you said yes. I've had the privilege of having multiple conversations with you because of our mutual relationship with Jody Arrington, who's now our Congressman here in Lubbock. But you know, many people will have not been exposed to your leadership or to you. And so I'm really thrilled to share with them my relationship with you and let them learn from you. So thanks for being on the show.

Clay Johnson (01:58):

Well, thanks. I'm honored today to be asked to talk to you about leadership. And it's funny, I did a thing last week for a friend of mine who has a company in Washington and she asked me to visit with her 15 project managers to talk about leadership and leadership in an environment of crisis. And so then I get a call for you. I like talking about it. I'm retired so I got time to do it.

Kade Wilcox (02:23):

It's good timing. Everyone's hungry for insight into leadership and learning. And as our audience will learn. You've been around some of the best leaders in the world and so it's going to be a really great experience. So let's start out by going through your background and sharing your story. Again, many of our listeners won't know you immediately, but certainly as you share your story they will. So let's start by going through your background and you share as much as much as you'd like to.

Clay Johnson (02:58):

Right. I was born in Fort Worth. My father was a rancher in Oklahoma. I was a good student growing up. He felt like he didn't take school in high school or college seriously. I was a good student, so he hoped that I would take it seriously what he didn't, and would really be serious about my education. And so I followed his lead on it. He encouraged me to think about going away to school, starting in high school. So I was a pretty good student for the Fort Worth public school, but not quite good enough to be considered for a prep school up East, so I was tutored for a year, even though I was making all A's in Fort Worth got to the point where I was accepted by a school called Andover in Massachusetts. And I went from there to apply to Yale and got into Yale.

Clay Johnson (03:53):

And I got interested in some things at Yale that could best be studied at MIT. So I wound up going to business school at MIT. So if I was as good at education as somebody could get. So I graduated from MIT. I was married at this point. And so I came back to Texas and went to work for Frito Lay in 1970 in marketing. And so I was in marketing positions for about 10 years, mostly with Frito Lay. Then I went into a general management position with a mail order catalog company in Dallas called the Horchow Collection. Roger Horchow started this in 1970 and so it was the late seventies. And growth had just sort of flattened out. And he was biased to hire a marketing person. So someone shared him with me and I went to work for him and was with them for 10 years.

Clay Johnson (04:50):

It was just a fabulous place to work, really talented people and they just need to have a different way to be shaken up a little bit in terms of how they think about their business Think about it perhaps in some different ways. And that's what I helped him do. And we ended up selling their company to Neiman Marcus and I stayed on with them for another three years. So I had 10 years in the mail order business in a senior executive role after 10 years in marketing. I had made some money when we sold to Neiman Marcus, so I had some money to be really focused on what kind of work I was going to do as opposed to just how much money I might be able to make. I was able to really think grand thoughts about what kind of things I going to be interested in or get involved in. I got involved in some nonprofit things helping a guy try to apply Sesame Street to preschool education, not just through television, but directly. A guy named Ralph Rogers. Fabulous guy, great philanthropist in Dallas and that was a wonderful experience.

Clay Johnson (05:48):

The other thing I got in that I thought I would be involved in for about a year and a half was I went to work for George W. Bush when he was still a candidate for governor. I thought I'd be with him for about a year and a half. I was with him all 14 years. I met George W. Bush at Andover. He was from Houston. I was from Fort Worth. There were 22 students from Fort Worth. Not that I remember or anything, but 22 students from Fort Worth at the Andover out of 740. So we Texans felt like we were surrounded by a bunch of Yankees, so we saw solace in each other's company.

Clay Johnson (06:31):

But anyway, I met this guy and his dad was in the oil business and his grandfather had been a Senator from Connecticut, but he was just George W. Bush from Houston, Texas. He wasn't the son of a president or anything. And I was just Clay Johnson from Fort Worth. Anyway we got to be very good friends, played mediocre basketball together, et cetera, et cetera. He's a wonderful guy. And we ended up going to Yale and we were roommates all four years at Yale. So I know George really well, our wives have been really good friends since 1961. A long time.

Clay Johnson (07:05):

And I'll talk about him a little bit later, but he asked me when he was running for governor living in Dallas. Just about the time he was getting ready to tee it up, I remember vividly, he and Laura asked, and my wife Ann and me to have lunch with them one Saturday at Solly's barbecue North of Dallas. And we went out there and we were enjoying the barbecue and he said, let me tell you why I wanted you to come up here. I'm going to win this governorship race. We thought he had no chance cause he was running against Ann Richards. But he said I'm going to win this thing. And I want you to come down there with me and help me set up my administration. And I'm not a political person, not at all. And what I think I know about politics is wrong. And I said, what does that mean? He said, the governor of Texas appoints 3,500 or 4,000 people, which is about the same number of people that are appointed by the president as it turns out.

Clay Johnson (08:09):

And so there's an appointments office. And the appointments office finds people to recommend to the governor to appoint to these different positions. Like the people that run the UT system and the A&M system, and the health system and the so on and so on. And I know you don't really think about politics. That's why I want you to do it. You'll be focusing on finding the best people. That's my goal for you. You find the best people for me to appoint. And people like Karl Rove in the political affairs group will make sure that we don't do anything stupid politically. So that's what I did. I thought I'd be doing it for about a year and a half. And so I got into it. We were good at it. I got really interested in it. We kept getting better and better at it. And I think I did about as good a job in figuring out all the different aspects of it. Way more than anybody else had ever done, if I do say so. So I was with him all the time when he was governor and all the time that he was president. So that's my background.

Kade Wilcox (09:11):

Were you in that role when he was governor the entire time? Or did you move roles after that?

Clay Johnson (09:18):

Over four and a half years. I didn't have policy involvement. I had nothing to do with working with the legislature except we had to get the Senate to approve 600 or 700 of the appointees. And so I've worked with senators to curry favor with them and make them aware who we're suggesting to be appointed and so forth and explain why, so get them on the program. When his chief of staff, Joe Alba was going to go over and run the campaign for the presidency, he asked me to come up to be the chief of staff. And he said the legislature won't be in session. You don't have to do political things for the legislature to help move legislation along. Cause if that was the case, I wouldn't be asking you to do it, I'd be asking somebody else who had political wherewithal. But you are to keep the governor's office involved where they need to be involved in implementing things and dealing with issues and crises or whatever.

Clay Johnson (10:22):

And we'll be in constant communication and I'll be coming back through town a lot. So that's what that was all about. It was four and a half years in the Personel operation and almost 20 months as chief of staff. The other thing he told me to do, which I'll talk about a little later, is he said the other thing besides be chief of staff, he said, I'm going to win this presidency and I want you to develop a plan for what I do when I win the presidency. Now I thought, is this guy full of himself or what is he talking about? And most presidents it turns out are reluctant to think about winning the presidency. They thought it was bad luck. Bad luck? You're running for the presidency and you are counting on luck to help you get elected?

Clay Johnson (11:14):

Come on. Bush knew from his father and his involvement being around the white house, what starting at administration was like. And if you wait until you're elected to start planning, well what are you going to do when you take office or who are you going to bring in as your Chief of Staff? I mean lineups and so forth. You have only 75 days or so to prepare to be a good president. That's not enough. And so he tasked me with the job 18 months in advance.

Kade Wilcox (11:42):


Clay Johnson (11:44):

So one of the things I'm going to talk about in a little bit is the key to getting things done is you start with a picture of success and work backwards. Rarely done must be always done. That's what he did. And he was already thinking about what's the definition of success.

Clay Johnson (12:03):

His definition of success for me on the appointment side was find out what we want this person to do by talking to the important people in my staff. And then find the person who can best do that. And on the transition, find out what a president has to have, and have that in place by January 20th, inauguration and figure out what we need to plan ahead of time to be able to do in the 75 days for him. And it turned out we had a plan really detailed. I love passing it around. It's fabulous if I do say so myself again. But we didn't have 75 days. We had 43 days I think or something. Cause of the election went to the Supreme court anyway. So that was my involvement with Bush.

Kade Wilcox (12:52):

This is super interesting. So you created the roadmap. So he wins, you had created the roadmap, it got condensed because of that election being pushed to the Supreme Court, his first election. What was your role for him once all the dust settled? What was your role in his presidency?

Clay Johnson (13:15):

What was my involvement in the presidency?

Kade Wilcox (13:17):

Yeah. Once he was elected and the plan was implemented.

Clay Johnson (13:20):

So starting when he was elected president I became the executive director of the transition. I had planned it about two months before he said, Clay, with all due respect, you're going to know the most about this transition, but nobody knows you. And so if I made you the head of the transition, they'd go, who? I need to get somebody with more name ID who's the head of the thing. I said, that's fine by me. So he selected Dick Cheney to be the chairman and I became the executive director and we conferred a lot about how to make it. So anyway, that was going into it.

Kade Wilcox (14:07):

So you were with him all eight years of his presidency, right?

Clay Johnson (14:11):


Kade Wilcox (14:12):

What was your role? Were you just the executive director of the transition the entire time? Or what'd you do after that?

Clay Johnson (14:18):

Yeah, I'm sorry. Memory loss. So I ran because I was the best person to do it in the United States to be the head of the federal equivalent of what I did for four and a half years in Austin which was to be the head of what's called Presidential personnel. And so Jody Arrington, for instance, had worked with me in the governor's office for all six years and worked in personnel that whole time. And so he went up with us and was one of the couple, three people that went into Presidential personnel up there because we knew exactly how president Bush would want that research to be done, that conversation to be done because we had done it for him to his total satisfaction for six years. And so it really worked out well. So I was the head of Presidential personnel for the first two years. And then he said, Clay we just about filled all the main positions for the first time. The next series of openings will be when they leave. And so you'll be moving some people into new positions and you'll be bringing new people in and so forth. I want to make sure you stay up here and stay excited about it and you may be less jazzed up if you're kind of recycling through all those same jobs again. I wish you would find something within the organization within the federal government, which you'd like to run. With all due respect, I wouldn't suggest a cabinet department. But something other than that. And I said, well sir, since you asked the thing that I'd love to do most of all, I'd like to go be the Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget.

Clay Johnson (16:06):

And he said the what? I said, well you know about OMB and you know about the budget part of it, but there's a management part of it. And that's what I would love doing because that person worked with all the chief operating officers for the federal agencies and they're usually the deputy secretaries. And they work on management policy and coordinates learning from each other, facilitating what they're doing individually and their agencies. And set higher goals and for the federal government to be more results oriented than it is. The federal government does not work like it should. And this is the person in your federal government that leads all efforts to make the federal government more results oriented. I would love to be that person. He said, that will be you. So I went over there and worked around that job and then when I was confirmed by the Senate I held that job for the last six years.

Kade Wilcox (17:13):

Okay. Wow, that's awesome. This has nothing to do with leadership, but I'm really curious and then I'll move on to some more leadership-oriented questions. Who within all presidents, and maybe there's some variation from one to the other, but who often yields influence on the most strategic roles that a president puts around themselves. You were doing appointments and that was thousands of people put in positions, but who influences a president as it relates to some of the senior and executive roles around them for Bush. I think of people like Connie Rice and people like that. Who really influences those people who you always see at the right hand or the left hand of the president?

Clay Johnson (18:03):

Those are the cabinet secretaries but also the senior people in the white house staff. So one of the things that was in the transition report about what you need to do, sir, is pick a chief of staff. And don't wait until your election day. You pick a chief of staff a month or six weeks or so ahead of time. So that person can start talking to you when you've got a spare moment in the final weeks of the campaign. Just start brainstorming with you about who you're thinking about for this and that and so forth. And so that discussion was to be held by him. And he had agreed to have that discussion with me. I think it was five or six weeks before the election. And so he said, I really like Andy Carr and I've had a lot of dealings with him and he was in my dad's administration.

Clay Johnson (19:06):

So I think he'd be a great chief of staff. And I'm thinking, he's the guy on ask. I said, then you ought to ask him. So he picked up the phone, he called Andy. So then he and Andy start working on who's the chief of staff and so, yeah, I'm sure the then governor would want Connie to be national security advisor and wanted Margaret Spellings to be this and that wanted Karen Hughes to be the Secretary of communications. It was people he was very close to and very confident in and we're just national caliber if not world caliber people. And so he made all those decisions in his own mind and talked to Andy about them. And then there were things in there about you needing to be able to pick a secretary by this date, which was like December 20th.

Clay Johnson (20:03):

Have them all there and those names be sent to the Senate. So the Senate can start deciding whether they wanted to start having hearings. Technically they're not supposed to have hearings before the president is the president, well the president elect is the president. But they usually make an exception for a new president and have unofficial hearings so they can have votes right after the swearing. So he knew that there were certain policy decisions that had to be made. Who the policy people were going to be that we would be talking to, who the legislative affairs person would be that we could be talking to and so forth. So all those decisions internally were made and actually what Andy started doing was he started meeting with them as a group. So I was going to be on the senior staff as the President's personnel and Spellings and Connie and so forth. So we started meeting as a group every morning during the transition just to get the chemistry, to get used to being around a big conference table with each other, learning about what kind of sense of humor or not people have. And it worked out great.

Kade Wilcox (21:12):

It's fascinating. You're tasked with the responsibility and like you said, you know this as well as anyone in the country. You're tasked with building a world class organization in a very short period of time. It's one of my favorite parts about being a business owner is hiring and building a team. And by hiring and building a team, you're building a culture and you had to do that on steroids in a very short period of time. So it's really fascinating. I got so many more questions.

Clay Johnson (21:39):

I had from June of 99 until say August 1st, 2000, 15 months or so to develop that plan. And then he started pulling people in to share the plan with them. So at that point, I had reviewed it with Cheney. I had reviewed it with people like Josh Bolton who became a policy person, and other key people, Margaret Spellings and so forth who were going to be involved. The plan was there, but we knew what we had to do and we knew by when we wanted to do it. We all agreed on that. Once the gun went off, we then started doing it. And actually it was Cheney, Vice President Cheney, who decided that we weren't going to wait until the election was decided.

Clay Johnson (22:33):

So he called everybody in the white house staff to go to Washington and he raised some money to create an office, a transition office, privately funded. And we started making Presidential Personnel decisions or developing recommendations before Bush was even officially the president. Cheney said we couldn't wait. And he was such a senior guy. He had been in Congress. And then he just knew he could do that and needed it to be done and it was that important.

Kade Wilcox (23:11):

That's cool. Okay, well I have several questions for you. Your own leadership and then hearing a little bit about your observations of President Bush and his leadership and other leaders that you were surrounded by. You were responsible for a lot of things, so how did you try to view your own leadership?

Clay Johnson (23:31):

The first leadership position I ever had that was not just the product manager or the assistant product manager on Fritos or something like that was when I was about 28 or 29. There was a nonprofit group that had 500 young adults members who helped raise money for the arts in Dallas. And we used to put on a mediocre art festival in Dallas inside of an empty parking garage over a weekend and raised, I don't know, $5,000 or something. And so for one of them I was selected to be the head of food.

Clay Johnson (24:27):

It's a telling story, but bear with me. I was the food chairman and which means I brought some Fritos to sell. So the head of this thing at the end of it said, let me have your suggestions for what this art festival ought to be next year. Well, I wrote an entire business plan for it. Most people expected a half a page, and I wrote about a three page business plan. And a friend of mine, Ron Steinhardt, he's a well known banker and has been retired for many years in Dallas. He said, this is incredible Clay. Guess who's the head of the art festival next year. You! So I took it, put together a team, had never been the head, not answering to anybody. And we put on the first outdoor citywide art festival in Dallas history.

Clay Johnson (25:28):

It raised $25,000 in front of the art museum in Dallas. It was fabulous. And I thought, I can do this, this is fun. But it started with me starting with the goal and figure out what we might do and then try to bring that enthusiasm and that mindset for a group of people and involve more people in brainstorming about how to deliver on that promise. So my whole approach to leadership is, help the group of people, it's like being a coach in my mind, it's helping, facilitating a group of people and then helping them be smart. First of all about figuring out what's the goal, what's the picture of success we're trying to paint? And then once you've got that, work backwards to focus on what we've got to do between now and whenever this picture of success is supposed to be completed.

Clay Johnson (26:27):

Is it a year from now, three years from now, when do we want this to happen? And so that's where we focus. Everything we do with the short term, it's related to what we want to do ultimately in the long term. Because usually it starts the other way. You say, well, what do I want to do next week to start showing that I'm working on it? And you ended up only working on it, the federal government in particular, but most government entities, but the further away from the people you get, in this case, the federal government, the more difficult it is for the government to pay attention to accomplish the desired outcomes. Because you have to make difficult decisions and it's hard to show progress in the short term because you got to pass a bill and appropriate money. You're just getting started. You haven't accomplished anything yet.

Clay Johnson (27:17):

You've got to then start spending the money effectively to accomplish the desired outcome. And most people aren't going to be there, members of the House, may not be there when you start spending the money wisely. So its picture success and then work back into the present. I ran across a famous quote by George Marshall, former of the Marshall plan and one of the top generals during World War II. He made a comment, I don't know in what context. He said, if you pick your battle objectives well enough, a Second Lieutenant can make the battle plan. It's all about what are your goals? What are we doing here? I heard the story of Bush meeting with the senior people in the Defense department about, I don't know what I can only imagine. And at one point he stopped him. He said, wait a minute. What's the purpose of the defense department?

Clay Johnson (28:15):

And these guys were looking at each other like, now there's a question we've never been asked. That's the kind of person he was. Where are we? What are we here to do? What do we exist for? What does this Defense Department exist for? We're getting away from what the picture was that they were trying to paint. So it's a picture of success working backwards. Another key part of it is you're doing it with a group of people. Nobody walks in with the answers if you're working on something significant. And so you've got a group of people, many of them super high powered, super involved. They're heads of their own organizations to pull in the heads of these different organizations together. You can't do it to those people, you have to do it with those people.

Clay Johnson (29:01):

You can't order them around cause they're the ones that are gonna have the most knowledge about what has to happen when the rubber meets the road. They know more about the particulars of the agencies involved than you do, so what you are is a facilitator and enabler, a coordinator asking good questions keeping everybody on track. And you've got to do it together, it's a partnership. You have to do it with them and you think of it as you are working to be successful and you as you make decisions, it's so that they can be successful. Not you. No one will ever remember who called this meeting or the people that put the agency together. They will be the ones that we celebrate.

Clay Johnson (29:51):

So how we got into the business of doing it at the federal government was when we were working on some complicated thing within an agency or involving different agencies when we got to the end. And we had been successful when something that was a high risk operation ended up being rated a low risk operation, we would go out and celebrate with them. The senior members of the agency would brag about their people and I get up there and brag about the people and we'd have you know, lemonade and chips and whatever. And applaud them for forever changing the effectiveness of their agency. It was not about what we in the white house had done it's what they had done for their fellow employees and all future employers. And you talk about people who were proud as punch. They just loved that. And that's the kind of mindset you create. So I got into that early and it worked great. And I could see it working at Horchow when I was there. And it worked in the state government as well as the federal government.

Kade Wilcox (31:03):

That's really good. Did you have a specific approach to learning from failure? I'm curious, everyone talks about how important it is to learn from failure, but very few people actually have a method or a real intentional way of being able to document or whatever the case may be to really absorb and learn from failure. And I'm curious, in your years of leadership and watching other leaders, is there anything about learning from failure that really sticks out to you or you think is really critical for a leader?

Clay Johnson (31:34):

Well as unaccustomed as I am to failure, to me it's like success. It's something to learn from. And so first of all, you call a spade a spade and you call a failure failure or a shortcoming a shortcoming. An example, when President Bush called us on something, you figure out where you fell short, why you fell short, how you can not fall short going forward. But also you go in and correct what's going on and you just kinda have to constantly review how you're doing and never take yourself seriously. You have to admit that you're a bunch of humans and nobody ever said that humans are perfect.

Kade Wilcox (32:35):

No, that's good. This is something I've really looked forward to asking you because a lot of folks listening to this podcast, myself included, fancy ourselves as really busy, right? You've got families, you've got kids, you've got businesses, you've got employees, you've got meetings. And when you start to think about that on a federal government level and the office of the President, the most powerful human in the world, you start to think, I probably am not as busy, as someone like that. And so I have two questions for you and you can take this wherever you want. One, I'd love to hear how you manage your time and what you observed of other people who had to manage their time very strictly.

Kade Wilcox (33:17):

And then the second thing is I've read some material that you've written on how to have effective meetings. And I know you have some strong thoughts on that given that you were in so many of them throughout your life and you are about efficiency and results. And so the first part of the question is how do you manage your time? Or what were things that you observed about people who were effective at managing their time? Second part of the question is just your general thoughts on how to have an effective meeting and just anything related to meetings as it comes to your mind.

Clay Johnson (33:47):

Yeah. Great. As I mentioned, I'm very analytical and a list maker. And so when someone says, I got to do something. It's saying, okay, well what does that mean? And when we need to do it by. And so like when you said, Clay, would you be willing to do this podcast. When is it? Thursday. So then you start backing up. What do I need to know? What are your questions? And then what will my preliminary answers be and I need those by Wednesday. And here we are. And so I make lists. One of the things on the list is what are the other lists I need to make? So it's to a fault. But the rumor has it that people that get into their seventies, sometimes their memory fades.

Clay Johnson (34:35):

I'm not saying that's true or not, but I heard it and I think that it might be true. So I've got a lot of 3x5 cards in my pocket about when to do stuff. This is stuff I need to do today versus tomorrow and so on and so on. So I'm very disciplined with that. And people that are less disciplined that way usually surround themselves with somebody who is. It's one of the things that I learned starting back as a senior in college. Taking this from a guy who's a famous organizational behavior person named Chris Argyris, talk about groups. He said groups are the sum of the people and they're all not alike. And the thing that makes the group so powerful is you have people that compliment each other in their abilities. And so if you have somebody that's very analytical, like I am, you get another person in there that brings another thing.

Clay Johnson (35:35):

Say he or she can be less analytical because Clay is over here keeping them on no discipline or vice versa. Or if this person is a gifted writer. I had a woman that worked for me who was very talented in these areas and she had only gotten superlative ratings in her time at the federal government. But one of the things I thought she was a bad communicator in writing. Not bad, but it could be a lot better, more effective. And so I pointed it out to her and she was shocked. And I said, don't take it as an insult. Take it as an opportunity. And so the answer is not to go to writing school or anything, the answer is get somebody on your staff who has a gift with a pen and a typewriter, a computer, whatever.

Clay Johnson (36:27):

And so you tell the person what you're going to say, and they'll tell it in a very effective way. And she did that. And within six months time, she was the darndest, letter writer, memo writer, report writer, and so forth going. And so it's a complimentary meeting. I mean the complimentary teams where the people compliment each other. The thing that I do is in terms of meetings is you start with what's the purpose of the meeting? What's the definition of success for this meeting? It's gonna be next Thursday, eight o'clock, and it's going to last an hour. And so at the end, what do we want to say we have done there? And you want to communicate that to people you're inviting and you want to give them an agenda.

Clay Johnson (37:22):

And if there's material that they can read ahead of time that's relevant to that, if you don't distribute it to them ahead of time, they have to spend meeting time to read it, send it to them ahead of time. Unless it's controversial, for your eyes only kind of thing. What the meeting is related to, what's the information, how might we proceed and be realistic of what you're gonna accomplish in that first hour as opposed to we're gonna come out with a cure for cancer. No, we're not. So think about what the goals are. Then you have the meeting, you come in together and you're following your agenda and the language that you use in a meeting is important. One of the things is to always use certain keywords, particularly the management world. In the OMB world that I was in for six years, you want to use the word results a lot. I remember being with somebody after I'd been at OMB a couple of years and we were watching the President make some speech on television and the president was talking about the results, results, results. He mentioned the results three or four times and somebody said the president is using that word you use all the time.

Kade Wilcox (38:45):

Yeah that's really good.

Clay Johnson (38:45):

And another word is effectiveness as opposed to, for instance, one of my pet peeves, efficiency. Efficiency is a very scary word to use around public employees because efficiency generally connotes we need fewer employees here to do it for less money. And that generally means fewer employees. It scares employees. And a subset of the meaning of effectiveness is greater efficiency, which means you are spending your money more wisely. And maybe you're spending more here so you can be more efficient about this money or whatever. But you still highlight efficiency. You're going to raise concerns, anxieties that are unnecessary. So no efficiency, pull out of pocket effectiveness. You also want to talk about how you want to congratulate people when somebody has a really good idea. Say that's a really good idea.

Clay Johnson (39:54):

That's a really results-oriented idea. Now you're talking about greater effectiveness there. I use all three words in the same series of words. So one time at the end of a meeting with the President, everybody else had left and I stood way back. I said, Mr. President, I have one suggestion out of the blue for you. And he said, what's that? I said, you go around and you meet with employees and so forth. You hear about what they're doing and you're very glad to hear it. You have great appreciation for them but you invariably thank them for their work and their service. My suggestion to you is thanks is not the right word. Thanks suggests that they're doing it as a favor. Actually these people, our full time employees, have a goal.

Clay Johnson (40:47):

They had a plan that said let's do this by this date. And when they did it, they accomplished their goal. They ran the race in the desired time, or they got it done when they said they were going to do it. So they did something they hoped to do. And in my mind that means you should congratulate them as opposed to thanking them. And he looked at me with a critical look and said, I never thought about it that way. Let me think about that and I'll get back to you. A few days later I saw him somewhere and he called me over. He said, I've been thinking about congratulations. He said, it's a little too fancy a word for me. Nice job is what I feel really comfortable saying.

Clay Johnson (41:38):

I said, nice job it is. That means the same thing. Nice job from you means a thousand congratulations for me. So go get them with nice job. But again, to have fun and little lightheartedness to have meetings, I would take in two cards. One was red, i.e. avoid this, and it had a "B" on it. "B" stands for bureaucratic. There was another card the same size. These are plastic cards. This one was green and green is good. It had an "R" for results. And I would tell them ahead of time, you're probably wondering what these two cards are, we're going to have this hour and a half discussion and so forth and brainstorm a little bit. So I hope we have lots of results oriented thinking, not so much bureaucratic thinking and let's recognize it when we hear it.

Clay Johnson (42:43):

So I'll put it down. And my arm got tired of using that green "R" card and they were inclined that way anyway, but it just made the point, in a lighthearted way. There are things you can do in the meeting, if the meeting is going to be a contentious meeting, there are ways you can manage potential contention. If this group of people is likely to be vehemently opposed to this group of people, don't seat them next to each other. So besides walking around the thing, you can also threaten the issue yellow cards and red cards like in soccer to someone who's overtly disrespectful of the other people, which I've done a few times, again, somewhat lighthearted, but it caused us to have an unbelievably effective meeting. And then at the end of the meeting, sorry for all this.

Kade Wilcox (43:39):

No, this is good.

Clay Johnson (43:41):

At the end of the meeting, there's a summary of what was accomplished or what the next steps are. Very clear going in and very clear coming out what got done, what still had to get done, and where we put the next steps.

Kade Wilcox (43:50):

That's really good. Yeah. I've referred back to that Word document. I think it's been three or four years now since you sent me that Word document where you had written down a lot of ideas about meetings and things that are critical. And it's really shaped how I try to approach meetings because in my humble opinion, there's nothing worse than a waste of time in a meeting where there are no results. I serve on a handful of city committees like the TIFF board and things like that. And thankfully it's led by Robert Taylor who's an extremely effective executive, he's the CEO of United Supermarkets. So he's into results too. But there are times where it'll start lingering and you'll just feel like there's nothing results oriented about this and you just start getting anxious. So your thoughts on this and the writings that you shared with me really influenced the way I try to approach meetings and I really appreciate it. I need to get a lot better for sure. But it's been really helpful.

Clay Johnson (44:52):

The overriding summary of everything you said is what were you trying to accomplish? You started with that. Maybe you didn't use those words, but it's, what's the picture of success that we will be painting as a result of this meeting?

Kade Wilcox (45:06):

Yeah. I like using the phrase what does success look like? Which is very similar to what you've been saying. What does success look like at the end of this? And it's similar to what you said about working backwards, identify the target and then work backwards. And I like doing the same thing. It's like what ultimately does success look like? And then what are the key objectives that we've got to accomplish in order to get from where we are to where we want to go and where we're going to succeed? So I liked that and I think it's a really helpful framework. Well, let's finish our time. If you don't mind, I would love to hear your thoughts on, I mean, you were with President Bush a long time, I think you said 16 years in a vocational sense, right? Working years, much longer even just relationally. And I'm really curious what your observation of him would be in terms of the two to four most significant things that you observed about his leadership.

Clay Johnson (46:03):

Yeah. Well, a couple of things. You're talking about a picture of success. He was that way with me from day one. It's a focus of mine, but his focus was probably genetic and mine was an acquired understanding. But from the very earliest on, it's like when he said, I want you to come and help me find the best people to do the work for our administration as governor in Texas. That was the desired outcome, the picture of success. When he said to go be chief of staff and I want you to develop a plan for what I do when we win the presidency. That's the picture of success. I'm going to win it. I want to be able to spend the whole 75 days unlike any other President has spent them.

Clay Johnson (46:58):

I want to get more done, more effectively. So forth. That was the definition of success. When he asked at the defense department meeting, what's the purpose of DOD? Those people had never been asked that question. I don't know what the topic was they were talking about, but that's what it was. One of the things where he pulled me down off my high horse one time in a meeting was we used to meet at least annually with him talking about management stuff at the federal government. So we had all the deputy or the chief operating officers of the agencies there and we were talking and we were bragging about all the great work we were doing in this area and computers and HR and financial management and all these things and how we manage programs and all this transparency we had. And he said, that's great, I really like that you kept a scorecard.

Clay Johnson (47:48):

But let me ask you, when you've got all the computers you need and HR practices and financial management stuff, is there a guarantee that our citizens are definitely being better served by their government? There was this unbelievable silence in the room. I looked briefly around at the other people there, the deputy secretaries in particular and they were fidgeting with their papers and I said, well, Mr. President, I'm embarrassed to say it's not guaranteed. That gives you all the tools you need to be effective, but there are other mechanisms you have to be sure you've got that you're applying transparency to ensure that you are measuring. In transparent fashion exactly what we're doing for the citizens and how it compares to how we were treating them in the past.

Clay Johnson (48:47):

And so in all these dealings it started with what are we trying to do here? What is it? I have a story about 15-year-old George W. Bush. He was a leader then and a results-oriented guy then, but you didn't think of it in those terms. At Andover we created an informal stickball league where you played baseball with a broomstick and tennis ball and so forth. And it's just something to pass the time of day with slow Thursday afternoons or something. And the seniors got together and elected Bush, the commissioner of the stickball league, which wasn't hard, but he was the guy that would be best able to do everything possible to get it off and running. And also people enjoy the most being around.

Clay Johnson (49:48):

And he would be doing it for them, not to them, with them not to them. And the leadership of the school picks a group of people, usually there are leaders in the junior class to be the head of school spirit. And they picked the head of that group. As a junior in high school, George W. Bush was selected to be the head of the school spirit squad, which was a group of all the top most talented people in the school, in the senior class, which were in school spirit. It wasn't cheerleading at football games. At the end of our senior year when the baton was being passed to somebody, the Principal said, while the new guys are coming up, I want to personally congratulate George W. Bush and his spirit leaders because I've been at this school 42 years and I've never seen school spirit as high as it was this last year.

Clay Johnson (50:51):

He didn't go to spirit school. He didn't go to leadership school. His senior staff, his first Christmas as President, put together a bowl and we've got a couple of the adjectives that we thought best described him and engrave those adjectives around this bowl so he can have it on a table in his house or the West Wing or whatever. And we thought there'd be about eight or 10 words that everybody could agree on. There were 34 adjectives. They were words like honest, results-oriented, genuine, disciplined, caring, optimistic, reassuring. All of that times five or six. And so I saw those adjectives, again this was his first year of his presidency and I said, this is scary. If we had been asked at Andover going into junior year to describe George W. Bush, if we were as literate as this, these are the same adjectives we would have used to describe him. He's the same way. He was the same way at 15 that he was in the first year of the presidency. So he brought so much to the table and then being around his dad and so forth. You could see how that got applied.

Kade Wilcox (52:25):

My last question for you is what was he like in moments of crisis? When we're recording this podcast, we're in the middle of, I think all of us would agree, is a crisis both from a public health standpoint, but equally as much as an economic crisis. And so I'd be curious as to what you observed about him in the moment of a crisis when everyone else is in quasi-panic mode and not thinking clearly. What did you observe of him in the middle of a crisis that made him stand out as a leader?

Clay Johnson (52:58):

He was very calming. When we had a crisis with the legislature and some big thing was not going to pass or whatever. Or we were having trouble getting an answer for this or getting the money for that. Or we couldn't come up with an idea for doing this. He would say, wait a minute. It's supposed to be hard. Have you read the Constitution? Have you read American history? It's designed to be this hard. They did a really good job of designing the government to have lots of checks and balances. So, for instance, one of the things we decided is in terms of recommending people to him to point to key jobs is, had they ever been in a job where they're told no a lot. Because the first time you were told, no, it should not be when you're the secretary or the deputy secretary or the assistant secretary for something. Because it means a lot then, and we don't want you to be shocked to be told no the first time. Or people that had grown up and given their way, that were never told no or they just always had their way with things. That's not the case in the federal government.

Clay Johnson (54:06):

So he was always trying to calm you down. First of all, you don't want to say you're not allowed to be anxious. You're not allowed to be fearful. No, he never says, I'm not afraid. He never says I'm not anxious, but it's supposed to be hard. So I know it's supposed to be hard, so I'm going to have to work harder and be smarter, but we can do this because that's why you all were asked to be here. That's why he put on his first cabinet, Don Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. So when 9-11 happened, who do we have as the head of state, head of DOD? Okay, well I think we got this one covered. He knew how difficult it was going to be, the degree of difficulty and the caliber of people that he surrounded himself with. And that's why he placed so much attention on what is this person capable of doing if and when they're called upon to do that because they could very well be called.

Kade Wilcox (55:08):

That's really good. Well, I really appreciate you joining us. This has been a real treat for me. It's been a long time.

Clay Johnson (55:14):

I have one more comment.

Kade Wilcox (55:14):

Yeah, please.

Clay Johnson (55:16):

One thing I haven't talked about here is one of my favorite stories about Bush. He talks about when he went to his first governor's conference, and I don't know whether it was Republican governor's conference or a national governor's conference, but he was there and met the governors. He was a brand new governor and some person who had been a governor somewhere for a long time, sounded like somebody from the South. He went up and introduced himself. I'm governor so-and-so from wherever. And they said, governor, there are two kinds of governors in this world and two kinds of people in this world. Some governors like to be, some governors like to do, I understand you're a governor that likes to do. That's the kind of governor you want to be. And Presidential personnel and the appointments office, what does that mean when we're trying to hire people, recommend people for him.

Clay Johnson (56:15):

We want people who are going to do, we don't want people who want an appointment, who want to be in this position or that position. So one of the things we've found out is, and looked at and proved as a valid way of doing it, go through a person's resume and highlight the verbs. Invariably they're all active verbs or passive verbs. You want an active verb person, they were not the assistant secretary of whatever. They accomplished a lot of fill in the blank as assistant secretary. It's what they did, not the position they had. And so he's a doer. And so when you're growing up you will look for jobs to do. Am I going to be able to do? Bush hadn't thought of it in those terms. So that governor came up to him in his first month or so on the job as governor. But it's something we tried to build into everything we advised him to do. It's all about doing. It's what we tried to build into all the people we recommended. You surround himself with doers and I think he got them and put the capital D and O on everything that he turned his attention to.

Kade Wilcox (57:25):

That's really good. Thanks for all that insight and for sharing. Well, we really appreciate you. Thank you for joining the podcast and for sharing all your wisdom and stories and I could keep doing this for a while. So it's been a real pleasure to reconnect with you and thanks for joining the show.

Clay Johnson (57:44):

Thanks for having me today. I appreciate it.


Stay Up to Date With Primitive

Subscribe now to receive your free, all-access pass to the wisdom and lessons learned from your favorite local leaders. Only on the Primitive Podcast.