Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts Says Economic Development Starts With Relationships

C-suite leaders who enter government often say they’ll run administration like they do a corporation. That doesn’t always work out in practice, but there are certainly some lessons and principles that can carry over into public office.

During an interview with Chief Executive for the upcoming Midwest economic development report, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said he’s taking a hands-on approach with Nebraska’s “customers” and fostering a culture of continuous improvement in state government.

Ricketts took office in January 2015. He was formerly the Chief Operating Officer and a board member at TD Ameritrade, so he thinks like a business leader. In 2007, he also founded and lead the Platt Institute for Economic Research, a free market think tank that conducts research in economic, tax, education and healthcare policy.

Nebraska has ranked highly in recent years for its pro-business environment and has moved up to No. 20 in Chief Executive’s 2017 Best & Worst States for Business, up from 27 in 2016. Nebraska currently has an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, one of the lowest in the nation. Non-farm employment in August was up more than 15,000 jobs over the year with the biggest growth in professional and business services.

“Everything that occurs
around economic development
boils down to relationships.”

Ricketts says economic development starts with leaders taking an active role in cultivating relationships. He has led numerous trade missions to China, the E.U. and Canada. He recently returned from a trade mission to Japan to further Kawasaki and Shizuki Electric Company’s investments in the state. Both companies have had a presence in Nebraska for more than 30 years.

“Everything that occurs around economic development boils down to relationships…I call companies directly,” Ricketts says. “You have to develop those relationships and that is part of why I take a hands-on role. You need to thank people for their business.”

Ricketts says he also brought from the private sector the belief that there are four things that make an organization successful. That includes a vision of where the organization is headed and communicating that vision to employees and outside stakeholders. He also says there has to be a concerted effort to get the right people on board, set the right goals and hold them accountable to attaining those goals. While governments often collect “tons of data,” they don’t always use it to drive results, Ricketts said.

His methods appear to working. Nebraska currently has an unemployment rate of 2.8%, one of the lowest in the nation. Non-farm employment in August was up more than 15,000 over the year with the biggest growth in professional and business services.

Ricketts started by having cabinet members write their own job descriptions then moved down the line and also instituted semi-annual reviews. He notes that all 12,000 state employees are now white belt trained in Lean Six Sigma methodologies to build a culture that values process improvement and continually looks for ways to build a stronger, more efficient organization. Ricketts says the state is conducting more than a dozen process-improvement activities in different agencies.

“It has really improved the way we operate, and you can measure that. By setting goals and putting in process improvements we have been able to improve the outcomes in how we deliver our services,” Ricketts says.

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Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.

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