February 23, 2018

Harold Taniguchi (MPA ’90)

Director, Department of Transportation, King County

What is your favorite part of your job?

It’s working with terrific individuals on some challenging projects. I enjoy people, so working within a large organization is a blessing since I get to interact with many, many individuals daily. Being an extrovert, the simple opportunity to be around people is a joy. 

Also, the challenges we face in the workplace are often not straightforward, so capturing the nuances of a problem holds my interest. Through the use of our plentiful skills (in theory), targeting the effort in the right place with appropriate intensity and timing are all necessary to make a positive difference. I find this rewarding, and since I don’t have illusions of total control, it’s a bonus if we get it absolutely right.

Why is the work you do important?

I am fortunate to work in transportation, which is absolutely relevant to our lives. Without the safe and efficient movement of people, goods and services, so many of our basic needs break down. On the human side, we would have individual and community isolation. Commerce would be constrained. Our ability to enjoy the region’s beautiful surroundings would be compromised. If we implement our transportation needs poorly, it could negatively impact some communities and the environment. So what we do in transportation is important.

On another front, being a leader for an organization requires that I act in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Paying attention to what matters to our employees can have big dividends. We all benefit from increased employee participation, open communication, and the sharing of lessons learned. So in my role as a department director, being an above average leader (or better) is also important.

What lesson/s from your graduate education still influences you today?

The ability to staff decisions with evaluative criteria, the value of non-linear thinking, and the importance of organizational structure are a few things that come to mind. And if I were a better student, I’m sure this list would be longer.

Aside from the text books, a key lesson I cherish came from a visiting practitioner imparting words of wisdom. He said that while a five page memo filled with alternative analyses is great, often times you only have three minutes to make your recommendation to a decision maker … while walking down a hallway to an elevator. My experience is that the ability to make your point quickly, even during less than perfect circumstances, is valuable advice.

I also remember asking a professor, out of frustration, to clarify a group assignment given to us. I was stuck and felt I needed more structure to get going on the assignment. In response to my plea for clarity, his response was “Well, Harold, sometimes life is like that. Deal with the ambiguity, and fill in the gaps as best you can.” I hated that response back then. And yet I live by it every day.

What has been the most surprising part of your career?

Professor Joseph Campbell would be proud of me. When he said “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us,” he must have been thinking of a career path like mine. After starting as an intern with King County in 1983, opportunities and new challenges just sort of fell into place. Back then, I would never have guessed I’d still be with King County today. I am fortunate and grateful that folks have been gracious with their support. And I still find the challenges of the work invigorating. Don’t tell anybody, but I know what my limitations are and I am still trying to be a better leader.

What advice would you offer to a graduate student at the Evans School?

I know it seems easy for me to say being an “old” person, but when we start out on our careers, we want to get to the next level of responsibility very quickly. I guess that combination of impatience and entitlement is a natural byproduct of “youth.” By focusing too much on the next step, however, we can miss some pretty important lessons along the way. Things we can learn deeply and put into practice later. Things we can appreciate for a long time, including working relationships. Things about ourselves that could come in handy when the inevitable moment of truth unexpectedly unfolds in front of us. It may be corny, but going slow to go fast has validity. Start consciously building your desired reputation on your first day. You may not feel it, but people are paying attention.

And I think that if we put an honest and open minded effort into whatever job we have, and do so with integrity and a dash of curiosity, good things in one’s career can happen. And if we connect with others (bosses, peers and direct reports) in an authentic manner, then amazing things can happen. So far, it’s been an interesting and fulfilling ride.