The Dick Cheney of Michigan?
Immediately after he was elected in 2010, Michigan governor Rick Snyder brought Richard Baird on board to be his “Transformation Manager”. It’s a new title and position for the state of Michigan and is paid for from the governor’s secret-donor slush fund called the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund (NERD). Baird, who had recently retired from PricewaterhouseCoopers, set up a consulting firm called MI Partners and took on one client: Governor Rick Snyder. He makes $100,000 year, paid for by unknown donors to the NERD fund, and sits at the right hand of the governor. His office is literally in the governor’s executive office suite. If you look at the Executive Office directory (pdf), there is Richard Baird’s name, listed along with the normal staffers paid like most other government officials with taxpayer money:
Until recently, you probably never heard of Richard Baird. He prefers to operate behind the scenes, pulling strings, “connecting dots” as he describes it, but never being part of the story. However, since his involvement in the secretive Skunks Works group that attempted to create a backdoor voucher program for schools run on the cheap by for-profit entities, Baird has come out from the shadows that he is much more comfortable living in. You get a flavor of Baird’s typical invisible role by looking at the title of a recent article about him in the Detroit Free Press. They ran a piece titled “Snyder’s talent guru steps out from behind the curtain”.
Until I met him for the first time in person this week, what little I knew of Baird was that he was a longtime trusted associate of Snyder, a low-profile operator who had assembled the governor’s team of top appointees — Nixon, chief of staff Dennis Muchmore, legislative liaison Dick Posthumus, Treasurer Andy Dillon.
He clearly prefers operating behind the scenes.
“There’s a difference between secret and private. There’s a reason why the sausage makers don’t have you look at the sausage being made,” he said.
“A lot of great ideas get tossed around in private,” he added, “but you don’t toss one out to 20,000 people until it’s baked.”
In an MLive interview, Baird described himself and his position this way:
Baird talked about his role in an interview with MLive earlier this month. It was one of a series of interviews he has done recently with Michigan media, a chance to gain some insight about a key figure who has operated mostly behind-the-scenes since joining Snyder’s gubernatorial effort.
“My role as I see it – my biggest role – is to facilitate an environment and a cultural dynamic for the governor and his leadership that basically makes them a functional, high performance team,” Baird said. “That means I do have my fingerprints on an awful lot of things. But it’s because I’m engaged, not that I’m the decision-maker. I’m engaged with those who are involved.
“I facilitate,” Baird said. “I connect dots. I challenge assumptions. I force data.”
I talked recently to a state government employee who has seen Baird in action. They have asked to remain anonymous for reasons that will become quite clear. They told me of a man whose first order of business was to make sure state employees were aware of what Governor Snyder’s definition of “team” is. Under that definition, being part of the team means that you do what you are told by the governor and his inner circle of advisers, even if it means breaking the rules.
Soon after being hired by Rick Snyder, Baird made the rounds of all of the state government departments, they told me. “Rich Baird was sent to all State of Michigan departments and offices to present at full staff meetings – mandatory attendance, of course – during the first months of the governor’s takeover. He was given two hours to speak to each staff group about ‘the importance of teamwork.’ What he really did was regale us with sugary stories of his past working relationship with Snyder – at several corporations, reporting alternately to each other, ‘convincing’ workers about the importance of teamwork.”
Baird’s “convincing” took the form of cautionary tales about those who had not toed the line in accordance with the governor’s wishes. One government employee was interviewed by a high school student at her son’s school and asked about her opinion of the governor’s education plan. It was not favorable and, after it was published, she was called in for “a chat” with the governor about the importance of teamwork. Although she kept her job, the implication was clear: do not talk negatively about the governor and his administration or your job is in jeopardy.
Another story Baird told was about a time soon after he was hired when he came to work early and had forgotten his state government ID card. A security guard refused him entrance — standard policy for the Capitol Building — and told Baird he would have to wait until someone came in who was authorized to escort him to his office. Baird asked to use the restroom and was allowed to do so with the requirement that he report back to the security area after he finished. Instead, Baird convinced a custodian cleaning the restroom to take him to his office, a clear security violation. However, Baird concluded his story by commending the custodian for her “customer service” and revealed that the security guard who had followed the security procedures was brought before the governor to be scolded despite having followed the security procedures.
“Following Baird’s ‘stories’,” they told me, “The entire staff were completely silent. Not one of us missed the threats and intimidation the he presented to us.”
This meeting was repeated throughout the many state government departments, they said. “He gave basically the same presentation to all state departments. I have heard it from colleagues and friends in quite a few of them. With different twists on the specifics of the stories to make them more threatening, and personal, of course.”
This is an interesting glimpse at the person described as a “transformational manager” and it’s unsurprising that he prefers to remain behind the scenes to conduct his dot-connecting and to whip state government into a unified, obedient team. Baird is involved in many different things and sees his role as a facilitator. He may not make decisions but, once a decision has been made, Richard Baird sees to it that it gets done.
[Photo credit: Michigan government courtesy photo]