Call of the Elephants

10 October 2008 Maria Cino

With the US presidential election one of the most anticipated in recent memory, Maria Cino has the daunting task of overseeing the Republican’s 2008 National Convention as CEO and president. Steve Coomber meets the woman supplying the soapbox.

No one knows whether Senator John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, can win the next US presidential election for the Republican Party. But one thing is for certain, the Republicans will go into the 56th consecutive quadrennial US presidential election on 4 November 2008 energised by one of the best attended Republican National Conventions (RNC) ever. And it is an event that has kept 2008 RNC president and CEO Maria Cino busy for well over a year now.

An organisational challenge

Running a convention is similar to looking after the population of a small town. Taking place over four days in September, 45,000 people, including 15,000 of the world’s media, will converge on Minneapolis, St Paul. There are 101 hotels, 16,000 rooms and myriad transport links to arrange. Then there is the security and all the other arrangements required as a result of having the current US president, the presidential candidate, and the vice-presidential candidate all present.

Budgeting for this kind of event is fairly challenging too. "We manage our budget very, very carefully," says Cino. "Because, when you are putting the budget together, there are still items that are unknown. So you try to manage your money so that there is enough to deal with any unforeseen problem that arises."

"I really prefer managing people, managing large organisations, because I really thrive with the people that I get to work with."

Unforeseen problems such as that faced at a previous convention when the management team realised late in the day that the air conditioning at a particular location was not going to be able to keep things cool enough once upwards of 20,000 people were gathered together for six hours. To avoid overheating, a last minute decision was made to move in several huge, stand alone units and the auxiliary power needed to run them, at considerable additional cost.

Organising the convention and managing its budget though should not faze Cino too much, given her track record dealing with a number of challenging government appointments. There are few female CEOs in the US, but given the budget that Cino has commanded in previous jobs, in many ways her current role is akin to running a small multinational company.

As assistant secretary and then director general of the United States Foreign Commercial Service, Cino helped to run a network of 48 offices in 50 American states and 162 offices overseas. Then, in the Department of Transportation, she managed 60,000 employees and a budget of $65 billion.

She was the perfect appointee for the CEO position, having been involved with Republican conventions since 1984. Once she had accepted, the first thing she did was to talk to the previous three people to hold the CEO job."I talked to them about what worked, what didn’t work, and what we could change, and then it was time to start putting the team together for the convention," says Cino.

After making her first appointment, a vice-president, the next step was to hire someone who could help fill something of a sales job, promoting both the twin cities location to delegates and the wider world, and the benefits of holding the convention there to the people of Minneapolis.

"We wanted to create an enthusiasm about the convention and we did that by hiring a communications director early on, something that’s traditionally not done for several months," says Cino.

She opted for a streamlined management structure, appointing seven directors on the staff when previous CEOs might have had ten to 14. The seven directors cover areas such as delegate affairs, external affairs, communications, operations, finance and security.

Although she describes herself as a hands-on manager, Cino still manages with a comparatively light touch. "I meet with my senior staff, my directors as well as my legal counsel, every Tuesday morning. I’ve also become very comfortable with weekly reports, which are just bullet points about what the directors are doing in their divisions. I usually get those on Friday, and give them back on Monday," she says.

"And my last category on the weekly reports is action items; what can I do to make their life easier in their division? So I’m going to keep out of it, but if there’s something that they need help with, if there’s a phone call I could help make, or a meeting they want me to call, I need to know. Because I don’t want a whole lot of paper, I try to make sure that every division is independent, but I also want to know what is going on and I want to be helpful."

In addition, during the first year, Cino and her VP have a one-to one with each director every other week. And then, as the convention draws closer, meetings grow more frequent, both on an individual and departmental basis.

Open doors

On a day-to-day basis, Cino is not one for ivory towers and closed office doors. She prefers the classic management by roaming style, pioneered by executives at electronics giant Hewlett Packard, and documented in the bestselling business book In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman.

"I'd honestly say I’m kind of a workhorse."

"I’ve always had an open-door policy. Anybody, including the interns, can walk in if they want to talk to me about something. Even when I was at the Department of Transportation, and at one point had a security detail, I was never really tied to my desk. I like to wander around the building, you learn a lot more that way. When I need to see somebody, I’ll just walk down to their office and sit down and talk to them, or walk and have a cup of coffee with somebody," Cino says.

In fact it is fairly obvious that much of Cino’s success in her various roles is down to her genuine enjoyment of working with other people and the rapport she strikes up with them. "I really prefer managing people, managing large organisations, because I really thrive with the people that I get to work with; the young people just starting who are eager, energetic and want to learn, and the more experienced people who have been around in the business for a long time that I can learn from," she says.

There is no question that organising a successful convention requires considerable ability, experience and management skills, especially on the part of the CEO. Or that Cino has indelibly stamped her management style and personality on this year’s Republican National Convention. But Cino remains modest about her role.

"I’d honestly say I’m kind of a workhorse," says Cino. "I think of myself as the manager, with a great team, and then I think of the RNC and the McCain people as my board of directors, and if they have certain needs and wants then I try to make sure that we can marry what we are doing with their needs and their wants. It is as simple as that."