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Q&A With New Bush Center President & CEO Ken Hersh

May 31, 2016 13 minute Read
Ken Hersh, the new president and chief executive officer of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, outlines in this interview his goals and vision for the Bush Center.

 A lifelong Dallasite, Ken Hersh explains what success will look like for the Bush Center, including the Bush Institute, in 20 or 30 years. He also shares what he has learned from leadership in the business world, where he still serves as chairman of NGP Energy Capital Management, a private equity firm he co-founded in 1988, and as a senior advisor to The Carlyle Group.

Hersh begins his tenure today at the Bush Center, succeeding Margaret Spellings, who left in February to become president of the University of North Carolina system.

Tell us about your personal story.

It’s pretty Dallas-centric. I was born and raised here, went to St. Marks for 12 years, and then went to Princeton as an undergraduate. After that, I spent a couple of years at Morgan Stanley in the mid-1980s, and then went to Stanford for business school. I graduated from there in 1989. I actually started my private equity business right about the time I finished and moved back to this area in 1989. I haven’t left.

Now you are the head of a presidential center and policy institute in your hometown. What is your vision for the Bush Center?

The Bush Center is off to such a great start. You would not know from looking at the work that it is only a few years old. 

The momentum from the programming is phenomenal. The quality of the team is phenomenal. The level of support and involvement by the broader constituencies is phenomenal.

The most important thing that I can do is think about the long-range strategic planning. What will this center be like 10, 15, 20 years from now? I also want to build off the great work that is already being done. 

So, looking 10, 20 years down the road, what will success look like?

Success will look like the Bush Center is sponsoring, promoting, and defining impactful initiatives that are consistent with the vision of President and Mrs. Bush. In addition, and importantly, those initiative benefit from, but don’t rely upon their personal presence or advocacy to be successful.  The Bush Center should be a living and breathing organism.

The problems we face today will not be the problems we face 20 or 30 years from now. And just like a university is constantly ebbing and flowing with what is happening in the world around it, I think this institution can do the same. 

Today, President and Mrs. Bush give us such a great wind in our sails, but that wind isn’t always going to be there. The long-range view of success is what we are doing is impactful, what we are doing is meaningful, and what we are doing reflects the now.

You have talked about sustainability and depth in our work. What does depth in our work mean to you? 

It is all about making an impact. Everything we do should be impactful, but we don’t have to do every impactful thing.

Impact means the work is integrated with some original thought and integrated with policy objectives or the needs of various topics. The impact may be driving change, or it may be just driving innovative thought and bringing people together and integrating it with the work of our staff. It’s very initiative-dependent. If we are able to do it right, in each of the initiatives we choose we will have a dramatic impact that can document real changes and real action. 

What do you see as the Bush Center’s role nationally?

Nationally, the Bush Center has a unique position in conservative, free enterprise, free market ideals. These are not just principles that President and Mrs. Bush dreamed up, but they are the heart and soul of the country. 

At various times in our history, those principles have been owned by various parties so they are not defined by a particular party. But they convey a sense of accomplishment in a country that focuses around free enterprise, market opportunities, personal freedoms, personal property, and a strong, free, and democratic model that can be projected abroad.

Those ideals have created more value globally than people would ever appreciate. We should be part of the conversation about these values. 

Speaking of that, we are in a climate today where isolationism, protectionism, and nativism have gained some currency. How does the Bush Center apply its values in the world we are living in now?

You lead by example. The dangerous currents you have identified have never served a country well. Almost all historical readings around nativism or isolationism have ended poorly. 

We can do a good job of articulating that history, bringing it to life, and giving it a voice, one of many voices.

This is a real opportunity. In this election cycle, free trade has become an evil. There is no question about the economic growth and advancement that have come from countries that have opened up to trade. There also is no question about the reverse, about what happens to countries that don’t. The evidence is incontrovertible. 

If we are able to articulate those realities, and that we say this, not as a Republican or Democratic ideal, but as an American ideal that has served the country and world, we can make a difference. And we should not shy away from using it. We have a President that was very pro-trade and a North America competitiveness scorecard. That allows us to be a unique and important voice in the conversation.

Your background is in the energy industry. The energy growth and production we have seen in this country will have an impact on our international standing. Do you have any thoughts about how that will play out over the next four or five years? 

It has already played out.

The United States’ dramatic growth in oil production has made us less reliant upon other countries. We still import, but we have a choice on who we import from. We don’t need to import from every producer in the world like we used to do. 

The United States is now the world’s third largest oil producer and the largest natural gas producer. You could not have dreamed of those two numbers 10, 15, or 20 years ago.

If anyone needs an example of great ingenuity being applied to an old problem and changing the world, look no further than the United States’ independent oil and gas sector. The oil and gas revolution was not brought to you by the Exxons or Chevrons of the world, but by the independent operators who started 35 miles from here, outside Ft. Worth, Texas, and they spread across this country. 

That is a great example of innovation and it has liberated our foreign policy.  Do you think for a moment that we would have inflicted sanctions against Iran and pulled one million barrels a day off the market if we weren’t increasing our oil production by a million barrels a day? At one time, a million barrels a day would have caused a $50 move in oil prices, which would have hurt our economy along with the global economy. But our domestic production liberated our foreign policy.

You can go country-by-country and look at the way people react. Today’s policy makers are freed up because of it. They don’t always appreciate it as they are bashing the domestic industry and in effect favoring the other countries, but that is for another day. 

How do you see the Bush Center’s role here in North Texas?

This is a treasure for North Texas. The amount of programming that takes place on this campus is phenomenal. The number of people who have come through the library and museum as well as the programming at the institute has been phenomenal. This institution has become part of the scene, definitely in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, and if you look at the constituents we touch, really the whole state of Texas. 

Your mother was a SMU graduate. Tell us about her connection and your connection to SMU.

My mom was the first woman to receive a Ph.D from SMU. She got her Ph.D in economics in the 1960s, so SMU has always been part of our household legacy. 

Growing up in Dallas, when I was on the high school debate team I used to “borrow” my mom’s lifetime library card to get into Fondren Library to do research. I do recall the libarian looking at me a bit perplexed when trying to match the name on the card to the young boy in front of the desk. I guess I talked my way in. Even earlier, I went to summer day camp here.  It is kind of hard to avoid SMU if you are from Dallas and have lived here as long as I have.

How do you see the collaboration with SMU playing out with the Bush Center? 

The design is exciting. By design, there is joint programming. There is a budget for joint programming. There is an endowment for joint programming.

You can already see results. The events I have been to on both sides of the campus have had SMU faculty members as well as leaders from the Bush Institute. Faculty members come here as our thought leaders populate the campus. That integration, and the proximity of the two institutions, has led to a cross-fertilization of talent. 

As we institutionalize the programming, and have dollars behind it, we will make sure this lasts.

Tell us about your leadership style, and what you have learned about leadership from your business experience.

My leadership style has generally been by example. I’m a roll up your sleeves kind-of-guy. I am casual and on a first-name basis with everybody. I leave my door open and try to have as much of an interactive experience with everybody. If they see me working, they will work harder. 

One of the most important things is corporate culture. If you don’t have corporate culture, you have nothing. It is the table stakes. I feel great about the culture that is here and the people I have met and just watching the camaraderie in the halls. I hope to make that even more of a strength.

Setting goals and building accountability also is important. And I mean achievable goals. People talk about big bodacious goals but if they are not achievable then it’s hard to put your hands around them. People feel like they are just spinning their wheels. So, set clear objectives and clear goals, and have the goals be achievable and people be held accountable. 

Also, celebrate your wins. Make sure that it is okay for people to understand that not every line will be perfectly straight. There will be jagged edges, but as long as those jagged edges are happening on an upward curve we are in good shape.

If you don’t take a risk, then you don’t advance. And, if you can’t tolerate failure, then you are not taking enough risk. It is okay to make a mistake if you are trying. And we will try different things. We won’t be a static organization. 

From a leadership perspective, I want to re-enforce those points and make people feel comfortable working here.