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VOL. 131 | NO. 10 | Thursday, January 14, 2016

New Memphis COO Doug McGowen Knows Importance of Carrying Out Orders

By Don Wade

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From age 13 until he finished college, Doug McGowen was filling in his summers and college breaks with work. Real work. Sweat-on-the-brow work.

He grew up in Meadville, a small town in northwest Pennsylvania. And there he toiled for a small family-owned construction company, doing whatever was asked.

Former Navy commanding officer Doug McGowen is the city of Memphis’ new COO. He’s following in the footsteps of his father, who also was a military man and a councilman in small town Pennsylvania.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I dug footers to lay block in, I mixed mud, carried bricks,” McGowen said. “I got a real sense of work ethic.”

Beyond that, he got a sense of leadership. The boss of the family business would come to the hired hands if something had gone wrong on a job and ask questions: “Did I give you the equipment you needed? Were my instructions clear?”

All of that informed McGowen as he moved forward in life, as did growing up with a father who had been a military man but also a local councilman.

“I was interested from a very young age in the political process,” McGowen, 52, said. “His focus was on serving the citizens.”

Today, McGowen has a new role in his quest to do the same in Memphis. After serving as director of Mayor A C Wharton’s Innovation Delivery Team, just-elected Mayor Jim Strickland had new orders for the former Navy officer: become the city’s chief operating officer.

“The equivalent in my military career is (Wharton) was the commander in chief and when there’s an election there’s a new commander in chief, (but) the mission remains unchanged,” McGowen said. “In the city of Memphis, our mission remains unchanged. There may be a new commander in chief at the helm, and we all turn and follow the commander in chief.”

McGowen’s career in the Navy took him and his family all over the world. He was commanding a strike force squadron in Japan and flying fighter planes when in 2005 he got orders to come to the Navy base in Millington. From 2009-2011, he was commanding officer at Naval Support Activity Mid-South.

“One of the most important things to me was connecting the base back with the city,” McGowen said. “Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s we had a very strong connection, many young sailors up there. When we transitioned during the base realignment and closure there seemed to be a bit of a distance.

“We got a little smaller on the base, more senior in nature, and I think we lost a connection. There were people that actually approached me and said, ‘y’all still have a base up there?’ Clearly, 8,000 employees, we were one of the larger employers in the area.”

While commanding the base, McGowen became involved with Leadership Memphis and met dozens of city executives. Meanwhile, the longer the family stayed – wife Candace, a nurse practitioner, and a daughter now 19 and a son now 15 – the more the idea of remaining in Memphis appealed. Partly because the family had moved around enough, and partly because McGowen felt invested in the city.

Bloomberg Philanthropies backed the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team and that proved the perfect transition out of full-time military life.

“Innovation is exhausting work,” said McGowen, “but it’s absolutely rewarding as well.”

McGowen never has had trouble with hard work. There is plenty of that ahead in his new position and with Strickland’s points of emphasis: “He’s committed to cleaning up the city – blight, crime and litter, as well as (having) accountability.”

The city’s Office of Performance Management, McGowen says, is valuable as a vehicle for holding all members of the administration to high standards.

“The Office of Performance Management can help us track our progress objectively, and we can share that information with the public,” he said. “How long does it take a fire truck to respond from the time that you call? How are we doing when you call for a pothole to be filled?

“Throughout my experience, people need the same things to do their jobs,” he continued. “They need acknowledgment for the work that they’re doing, they need their leaders to serve them in a way that provides them the information, the resources and the expectations that are necessary for them to be successful.

“That transcends military service, government service, private-sector service. That’s really what a leader is about. I’m here to serve the agencies that report through me to the mayor to make sure that they have all of that. Let’s be accountable to the taxpayers for what we are doing.”

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