Lessons from behind the scenes at President Obama's 2009 inauguration

Victor Prince<Play podcast>

My interview with consultant and author Victor Prince. . .

PAUL: Every four years since 1801, Washington D.C. has had the privilege of hosting a presidential inauguration. And it’s more than just a big celebration for those on the winning side of an election. It’s a peaceful transition of power from one commander in chief to another, often across party lines, and I think it speaks volumes about the longevity of the oldest democracy in the world.

But whether it’s an inauguration or a July 4th celebration, or a protest. The participants typically get as many people as they can to stand on the Mall, that 2 ½ miles of mostly open lawn between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial. And while official crowd size statistics are hard to come by, the largest crowd D.C. has probably ever seen was on January 20, 2009 for the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. With an estimated 1.8 million people in attendance, it’s surely one of the largest crowds in U.S. history.

Well, our story today is not about politics or who was or wasn’t inaugurated as president that day. Instead, it is about what the leaders of a city of only 600,000 people did to make sure that a crowd of 1.8 million strangers descending on their city for that one day had a safe and enjoyable experience. Today I welcome Victor Prince, who had a front seat working for the Mayor of D.C. during that historic day, to tell us the story.

PAUL: Welcome to the show Victor.

VICTOR: Thank you Paul. I’m very excited to be here. I have listened to several of your interviews and really enjoyed them. And I’m excited to share my own story today.

PAUL: I am too, Victor. So, tell us about your role in the D.C. city government back then.

VICTOR: I’ve purposely bounced between the private and public sectors in my career, and I was working as a political appointee of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty at that time. Fenty was an exciting, young, reform mayor who attracted a lot of people like me to consider working for the local D.C. government. My day job was with a team called CapStat, which was a group of MBA types who crunched all the data that the city government collects through all the tickets, applications, reports and whatnot that the city bureaucracy generates. Fenty wanted to use all that data to hold the city bureaucracy accountable for the quality of service it was delivering to citizens. I loved that. In addition, I often did special projects for the City Administrator, the mayor’s COO, a great guy named Dan Tangherlini would would go on years later to be tapped by President Obama to lead the General Services Administration. The Inauguration turned out to be the biggest special project I worked on for Dan.

PAUL: What was interesting about preparing for the Inauguration?

VICTOR: We had our hands full and then some with all the normal preparations, and then we got a surprise curve ball in when we started hearing buzz that thousands of charter busses were going to be rented to bring people to the inauguration – or about 10 times as many as usually come to a huge assembly on the Mall. These are the big buses that you see companies like Greyhound and tour bus companies run. Each bus carries about 50 passengers, so that would represent a half a million passengers coming to the event. The bigger issue was just the sheer space these busses would need to park. At about 50 feet long each, 1,000 buses would form a line about 10 miles long.

Typically, when there is a big event in D.C., charter buses park at outlying subway (Metro) stations that have big parking lots (e.g., RFK stadium) and drop their passengers off there to metro into and back out of town while the bus driver waits. When Metro told us they were not going to be able to park any buses as usual because they needed their parking lots for record numbers of local area passengers planning to park their in cars to go to the events, we knew we had a real problem.

If we didn’t figure something out, hundreds of thousands of Americans who traveled many hours on a bus to attend the event would be turned away without seeing it, probably not even on television since they would be stuck in a traffic jam of buses that couldn’t park anywhere. People who traveled all that way to personally witness a day in American history they never thought they would see in their lifetime would be disappointed. Americans who wanted to see it themselves or hoist their kid on their shoulders so they could tell them when they were older that they were there that day. We didn’t know how we would get those folks to the event, but we knew failure was not an option.

PAUL: So how did you do it?

VICTOR: First, before we started taking on a bunch of new work on top of the regular preparations, they mayor and city administrator wanted to confirm that we had a problem and it wasn’t just a rumor. So we got the federal agency that regulates buses to give us all their email addresses to send them a survey asking about any planned trip to D.C. for the inauguration. Sure enough, more than 3,000 buses said they were coming and were planning on parking right on the Mall where they usually parked when they came to D.C. Yes, the problem was real and we needed to do whatever it took to figure something out.

PAUL: So what did you figure out?

VICTOR: Long story short, we basically had to flip everything we had done before on its head to come up with a radical plan that totally rethought how to get buses parked and get their passengers to and from the event. I learned that, to make the impossible possible, leaders have to boldly challenge assumptions and take some risks.

PAUL: What kind of risky things did you do?

VICTOR: Well, because the traditional way was off the table, we had to restart from square one. We broke down the big problem into the pieces we needed to solve. At its core we needed to find a solution that met three needs: 1) a space where every bus could stop to unload their customers, 2) that space needed to be next to a transportation option that would get people to the event, and 3) each bus would need to be at an exact pre-arranged point and time at the end of the event so its passengers could find their right bus. That last one was a tough one when you think about 100s of thousands of people finding their exact bus out of the thousands of buses.

Once we boiled it down to that, we were able to brainstorm a bunch of different ideas, including some pretty wild ones. Then we figured out the only way that would meet all three needs that was maybe the most radical – closing down hundreds of blocks of downtown streets to turn them into temporary bus parking lots within walking distance of the Mall.

PAUL: So, you turned literally hundreds of blocks, and dozens of miles of downtown Washington, D.C. streets, into a parking lot for out-of-towners. You’re right. That does sound like it would be very unpopular. How did it work?

VICTOR: Figuring out the out of the box solution was only part of the challenge. Then we actually had to make it happen. Here is when the mayor and city administrator again showed bold leadership. They convinced all the federal and other stakeholders to sign on to the strange plan. They deployed the National Guard to shut down the streets. They worked with the business and residential communities in the downtown that would be impacted (e.g., massive temporary no street parking zones). They enlisted hundreds of volunteers to stand in the dark cold wee hours of that morning to guide buses to their parking spots and give the passengers a map of where their bus was parked. It was a massive effort.

PAUL: How did it turn out?

VICTOR: We counted 3,000+ buses that parked in our temporary lots that day, representing 150,000 passengers. I think it is safe to guess there were many more that came that didn’t get counted in the rush or reply to our email survey. We closely monitored the activity the whole day to make sure all the passengers got back to their right bus too. It turned out, not a single person got reported to be left behind or on the wrong bus.

Lead inside the boxNet result for the whole inauguration crowd in a few numbers: 1.8 million people attended, 17 degree weather, 0 casualties, 0 lost people, 0 arrests. The real heroes that day were the public servants with DC’s police, fire, transportation, public works, emergency management and other agencies who worked incredibly long hours in very cold weather to make that happen. I was lucky enough to have a front row seat to watch them in action.

PAUL: So, what was your big takeaway from all this? What did you learn as a leader?

VICTOR: I think the biggest thing was that when you’re facing something that looks like it’s going to be impossible to do, leaders really need to be bold in challenging the assumptions that they’ve held before that limit their options, and then take some risk. Do some things that could actually go wrong. Only bold solutions will work for impossible problems.

PAUL: You have a book coming out. Tell us about it.

VICTOR: It’s called Lead Inside the Box: How Smart Leaders Guide Their Teams to Exceptional Results. I wrote it with my coauthor, Mike Figliuolo, and it comes out on July 20th. My part of that is drawn from my 20+ years of experience leading teams in both corporate America and public service. After leading teams from 3 to 300 people, I learned a lot of lessons the hard way about how to be an effective leader without just burning myself out.

Paul: Best of luck with that, Victor. . .   Thanks for joining me today.

You can find Victor at http://www.victorprince.com/ or http://www.discoveredlogic.com/.

PAS square profile Paul Smith is a one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for finding a solution to a seemingly impossible problem! I am sharing this article with some staff at the World Bank, a place where huge decisions are made and risks often need to be taken.
    PS I was one of the 1.8 million on The Mall that January day in 2009, a highlight of my life! Thank you Victor for being part of making that physical memory possible for 150K others from out of town.

    1. Thanks for the nice note, Kristin. Very kind of you to share that. I am glad to hear that you had a good experience at that event. There were a lot of great stories of people going above and beyond, including members of the crowd, to make that day work. If you remember how cold you were that day, think about how cold the police officers and others who had to work endless overtime and night shifts standing outdoors must have been that whole weekend. I don’t know how they did it. It was an amazing experience for me to witness all the great work that went into that event, and I am glad I could share one story here. – Victor

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