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Peerless Leaders: Mike Burke: Collaborative Innovation

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A while back I set out to tell the stories of leaders that inspire people to follow -- not through celebrity or ego or fear, but through humanity. The book- Peerless: Defy Convention. Lead from the Heart. Watch What Happens has, as often happens with books, taken on a life of its own. And, quite honestly, writing it changed my life. What I found in this process was encouraging and inspiring. These servant leaders we spotlight have changed their world, and achieved amazing results through commitment and effort. Over the next few weeks I want to share some of their stories with you.

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An Interview In The Dark

Entering the refinery president's office for his interview to become Vice President of Refining Operations for Texas Eastern, Mike Burke, a self-described 'nerd engineer' with no previous experience or background in refining, found himself in a dark room. The heavy, dusty drapes were closed tight against the sun, the air full of cigarette smoke. The president sat behind a desk that towered above the rest of the room on a raised platform. He held a sheet of paper containing a list of twenty technical questions on the refinery business.

"Let's see what you know," said the president.

Burke really was in the dark-he couldn't answer a single question. To each inquiry he had to say, "I don't know."

"Mr. Burke, I'm sorry you wasted your time... and I'm damn sorry you wasted mine, "said the president. "Finally, what the hell makes you think you were even remotely qualified to be interviewed for this position?"

Burke replied that the way to succeed is by assembling a team of talented people who DO know the business and then let them do what they do best; to which the president said, "That's the biggest piece of crap I've ever heard in my life."

A week later, against the refinery president's wishes, the Chairman and CEO of Texas Eastern named Burke vice president of the refining and engineering departments. A year later, as the company slid toward the brink of bankruptcy, Burke was promoted to president of the refinery and marketing operations. Assembling talented and dedicated employees around him, he created teams that worked to turn the situation around. "We were tremendously motivated to save the company and people's jobs," he says. "They were very loyal employees. It was amazing to me how few had left over the years. They had many ideas on how to improve and they were dying to share them."

A year and a half later, the company was highly profitable again. It turned out that his theory for success worked after all. And then, the chairman at Texas Eastern had another challenge for Burke that would once again put his theory of assembling talented people and letting them do what they do best, to the test.

A Vision for Community

Dissatisfied with the company's community standing in the Houston region's United Way, the Texas Eastern chairman tasked Burke with increasing participation across all divisions -- not by one percent, two percent, five percent, or even ten percent. Instead, it was Burke's job to increase the company's per employee giving by twenty-five percent.

Having just participated in American Leadership Forum's (ALF) Class III, Burke was immersed in the Forum's leadership philosophy of building strong communities and serving the public good through collaboration and innovation. Through an ALF outward bound experience the month before, he had learned the value of using visualization to achieve a goal that might otherwise seem unreachable.

Burke secluded himself in his study at home and imagined the day that Texas Eastern's United Way participation was announced. He visualized employees gathered in the company's headquarters, clapping and cheering. Balloons bobbed in the atrium and the company chairman grinned and gave a victory sign to the gathering, standing in front of a gigantic banner decorated with the logos of Texas Eastern and United Way. The company's contribution to the campaign was printed in bold, black numbers. In his mind, Burke saw that the results weren't twenty-five percent; they were fifty percent.

When the campaign ended, Texas Eastern did not, in fact, hit its twenty-five percent goal. Instead it TRIPLED its contributions per capita, going from 24th in Houston to second place only to Exxon. Once again, these remarkable results were achieved by Burke's ability to assemble and inspire a company-wide team of dedicated and talented individuals to generate and carry out a plan. The team organized employee tours of United Way-funded agencies, giving a first-hand view of the work they did to address hardships faced by the disadvantaged. Then the executive committee led by example, making their pledges public.

"It was an incredibly proud moment for the corporation," says Burke, who sees the campaign as a pivotal step in his development as a leader. "It gave me confidence to take a challenge and use creativity, innovation, leadership, communication skills, and of course creating a vision."

Transforming Corporations

Burke has been a part of many proud moments in his thirty-year career. He has headed the turnaround of four multi-billion dollar corporations in the energy and petrochemical industries by getting employees involved in solving problems and creating solutions. As president and CEO of EOTT Energy Corporation, in three years he doubled revenues to $12 billion, creating the largest crude oil marketing, trading and transportation company in North America. As President and CEO of Tesoro Petroleum Corporation, he brought the company from the brink of bankruptcy and built a highly profitable enterprise whose market capitalization increased seven-fold in 18 months. At T.E. Products Pipeline, L.P., he led the establishment on the New York Stock Exchange of an independent Master Limited Partnership corporation with a market value of $1.2 billion. He says, "More importantly we reduced lost time accidents from 65 per year to 4 per year in 12 months"

Sustaining Community

During his work with MDB Capital Ventures Burke formed the idea for the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, wanting to bring his broad energy experience to a place where he could make a significant, positive impact. He started reading about alternative energy technologies, water conservation, energy efficiency and sustainability issues and envisioned the results people could achieve by not only investing private capital but by participating in policy decisions.

He realized that he had a golden opportunity to help transform the community and region to forge a sustainable path for its future.

So Burke did what he does best. He brought a group of talented people together for their first meeting in March 2008, and he dived into research on clean energy, shared illuminating articles with others and scheduled events with top-notch speakers. People from all sectors of the community - the military, academia, entrepreneurial businesses, large corporations, city, county and state governments - come together to learn about and share ideas on issues of sustainability and renewable energy, water conservation, clean air, developing a smart grid, and wind energy.

"San Antonio is probably the friendliest city in the world and the community collaborates exceptionally well," he says. "We're addressing public policy incentives, rebates, and solutions that are going to help us down the sustainability path in a profound manner and in a manner that makes economic sense."