Shaun Donovan on leadership during economic crisis

Posted on Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Mr. Shaun Donovan in dialogue with Professor Sebastien Betermier at MDIIM Integrated Management Symposium.

Mr. Shaun Donovan in dialogue with Professor Sebastien Betermier at MDIIM Integrated Management Symposium.

By Rosalie Nardelli

On February 20, the Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management (MDIIM) hosted Shaun Donovan, former Director of the Office of Management and Budget of the United States Government under President Obama, as its latest Integrated Management Symposium speaker.

In dialogue with Sebastien Betermier, Assistant Professor of Finance at the Desautels Faculty of Management, Donovan addressed the spectrum of crises – from the Great Recession to veteran homelessness and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy – that defined his career with the U.S. Federal Government, first as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and later as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Donovan was appointed Secretary of HUD in the midst of the housing crash, which was “one of the largest crises in the history of the country [and was] unprecedented in terms of scale and complexity,” as Betermier emphasized. In this role, Donovan had to confront a host of challenges besides unravelling the ownership of void mortgages – a complex undertaking in itself. The speed and magnitude of decision-making, and the moral quandary of who was deserving of aid compounded the circumstances. In the end, Donovan and his team were responsible for developing a series of programs that steered the U.S. out of the Great Recession, culminating with the landmark National Mortgage Servicing Settlement, the largest federal-state civil agreement ever achieved.

If he showed ingenuity upon navigating the unknowns of the financial crisis, Donovan also demonstrated, as Betermier put it, “an uncompromising pursuit of an effective solution” when addressing veteran homelessness and the destruction of Hurricane Sandy.

Among the key initiatives implemented to respond to these respective issues were the Opening Doors plan and the Rebuild by Design competition. By rethinking the rationale behind past solutions, he succeeded in cutting the number of homeless veterans by 60 per cent over five years, and in funding the construction of sustainable infrastructure to safeguard against the destruction of future natural disasters.

In terms of lessons learned, for Donovan, “the perfect can be the enemy of the [greater] good” in times of unprecedented crisis and it is crucial to act expediently while leaving room to adapt as you go. He also shared the importance of recognizing your value within a team, the power of converting influential sceptics during multi-stakeholder negotiations, and, most importantly, the need to embrace innovation without fear of reprimand. According to Donovan, a hallmark of the Obama Administration was first to identify the right thing to do and then figure out how to do it, which encouraged healthy risk-taking that is rarely seen in government.

Prior to his departure from Montreal on February 21, Donovan continued to share his insights on public policy, ethics and partnerships around finance and housing with Desautels Honours in Investment Management and Masters of Management in Finance students. He also visited an undergraduate class on the social context of business to discuss homelessness and policymaking.

The Integrated Management Symposium Series is hosted by the Marcel Desautels Institute for Integrated Management (MDIIM) and invites members of the McGill community and beyond to explore management through candid conversations between prominent McGill academics and world leaders in their fields.

The series encourages participants to broaden their perspective to address the significant ecological, social, and economic challenges facing today’s societies. Past speakers have included: Mr. Kent Nagano, Music Director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Mr. Dominic Barton, Managing Director of McKinsey & Co.; and Dr. David Elmaleh, Associate Professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School and Co-Founder of PureTech. The Symposium Series is generously supported by Dr. Marcel Desautels, C.M., LLD’07.

Watch the leadership dialogue with Shaun Donovan and Professor Sebastien Betermier by clicking on the thumbnail below

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