Listening is Key to Handling Difficult Situations

E-newsletter Issue #88 | March 15, 2012

While Ed Charbonneau did not set out after college with his eye on a career in public service, the Indiana senator’s long record of leadership and ability to effect change have made him one of his state’s leading legislators.

Charbonneau spent 36 years with U.S. Steel, from which he retired as vice president in 2002. His ability to help lead U.S. Steel through tumultuous times and bankruptcy threats left Charbonneau with a reputation as a change agent and led to a series of post-retirement jobs with then-troubled organizations such as The Methodist Hospitals and the Northwest Indiana Forum.

It was after successfully navigating these diverse business ventures that Charbonneau decided his business acumen, experience and ability to bridge divides might be useful in the state legislature. He was elected to the state senate in 2007 and wasted no time bringing his experiences to bear.

“In my second year in the legislature, we dealt with regulations on ‘Call before you dig,’” said Charbonneau. “It was a ticklish situation because you had all kinds of parties involved and we just kept working and working and working together with everyone until we were able to craft something that everyone agreed with.”

Several years and one long economic crisis later, Charbonneau continues to test his ability to bring people together to create change where it’s needed. His ability to get results has led to recognition from his colleagues, including his selection as a 2011 Toll Fellow and various leadership appointments. Few positions test his skills more than his current role as chair of Indiana’s Appropriations Committee.

“As chair, I craft the school funding formula, which is more than 50 percent of the state’s budget,” said Charbonneau. “So again, you have all kinds of interested parties that are affected. So the more you can listen to people and let every voice be heard, the more likely you are to find a resolution that everyone can sign-off on—even if they don’t love every part of it.”

For Charbonneau, the ability and willingness to listen cannot be discounted.

“Even if you end up doing something someone doesn’t like, as long as they believe that you listened and that they tried to do something then they are more likely to be satisfied,” he said.

His ability to listen, which he brings to the state house and has worked hard to pass on to his children, is just one of the skills Charbonneau honed during his business career. In his mind, listening is central to good leadership.

“No matter what business you choose, we are all in the business of people,” said Charbonneau. “The one thing I tried to instill in my kids is the fact that no matter what, if you can deal with people with respect, it’s going to make a difference. This isn’t creative or innovative—it’s just treating people the way you would be treated.”

During Indiana’s recently completed 2012 session, Charbonneau used his brokering skills to help navigate a number of tricky reform issues, including education reform and people’s right to protect themselves.

“Indiana, like many states, is spending a lot of time on education right now,” said Charbonneau. “We’ve been trying to get more accountability—shining a light on what goes on in the classroom and trying to get to a results-oriented system.”

Charbonneau was pleased with Indiana’s ability to enact critical changes, such as making credits earned at two-year institutions more easily transferrable to four-year colleges and universities and instituting a second student headcount in February. Charbonneau called this last effort “making the money follow the kid.”

It helps ensure schools are properly funded for each student and helps to more accurately account for dropouts and transfers between schools. He and fellow legislators also spent time fighting credit creep, where colleges require more and more hours for graduation, making it more time consuming and expensive for people to get a degree.

On the issue of personal protection, Charbonneau instigated the debate on how to respond to last year’s Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Castle Doctrine.

“There has always been a common law rule that you don’t mess around with a man’s cave,” said Charbonneau. “That’s essentially what the Castle Doctrine said—the government can’t come into your home without a warrant. But last May, the Supreme Court ruled that no one in Indiana could resist the police regardless of circumstances.”

Charbonneau and others found fault with this ruling, envisioning the possibility of a rogue police officer forcing his or her way into a home in a case of domestic violence or abuse of power. His bill, Senate Bill 1, which was adopted, attempted to walk the fine line between public safety and personal protection.

“It was a difficult balancing act—giving people the right to protect their home, while also protecting police officers,” Charbonneau said. “Both are equally important. We tried to make it clear that we were addressing egregious abuses of power or acts of violence and that we were not talking about a situation with a valid police warrant or pursuit following a dangerous chase or something. We were dealing with perceptions and extremes and it was difficult but important business.”

Carefully balancing varying extremes and viewpoints in order to serve the greater good—whether that good is a business’s bottom line or the public good—is something Charbonneau had been doing his entire career. He credits his success with being able to surround himself with good people.

“I have always surrounded myself with good people,” said Charbonneau. “If you have the vision, integrity and standards, then having the right people around you will allow you to get where you need to be.”

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