Leadership Skills the Same, Regardless of Subject Matter
One semester in the early 1970s, when he was supposed to be in classes at Oklahoma State University, Richard Opper hitchhiked his way around the country.
He visited almost every state but knew immediately when it was time to stop looking.
“From my very first footstep on Montana soil, I knew I was going to live here,” said Opper, now the director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and a 2012 CSG Toll Fellow. “If you’d ever been here, you understand why.”
Dropping out of college for a semester wasn’t necessarily a planned thing.
“The highway system wasn’t all that old in the early 70s,” said Opper. “I just had a major outbreak of wanderlust to see what kind of things were happening in other parts of the country.”
Oklahoma was a fairly isolated state, and Opper had it in his mind to see both coasts and the world.
“It did ultimately give me more focus than I had at the time because I knew where I wanted to live,” he said.
Opper eventually returned to Oklahoma to complete his bachelor’s degree in agriculture. He moved to Montana and did some environmental work—something he had focused on since his high school days.
In fact, in 1970, Opper organized the first Earth Day celebration for his high school. He also organized a “walk to school” day in Oklahoma City, which literally is dependent on the automobile.
In Montana, he was interested in coal mining issues and was concerned about plans that he thought could destroy eastern Montana. He became very interested in coal mine reclamation and did research with the university in coal mine reclamation, later earning a master’s degree in reclamation in 1979 from the University of Montana.
Then he moved to New Mexico and worked on natural resource management issues for a nonprofit organization and with the Pueblo tribe there.
But he didn’t stay long—Opper moved back to Montana in 1988 and worked in the nonprofit environmental arena. It was, by then, his home. Opper met his wife, Sally, a school psychologist, in the state and they have been married for 29 years. Their son, Isaac, 26, is a student at Stanford University working on a doctoral degree in economics.
In 1990, “when everybody thought I couldn’t hold a job,” Opper said, he was hired as director of the River Basin Commission for the Missouri River. In that position, which he held for 14 years, he worked with eight states in the Missouri River basin, from Montana to Missouri.
“We worked very hard to come up with good plans to balance the competing interests of the state,” he said.
Then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer offered him a position with state government as director of the Department of Environmental Quality, which held throughout Schweitzer’s two terms in office.
The change in governors brought a big change to Opper’s career as well. Gov. Steve Bullock, whom Opper got to know when Bullock was attorney general, offered him his current job directing the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services.
“I went from an agency that had issue with which I was more or less familiar with to an agency that deals with a whole set of issues that I’m not very familiar with,” he said.
Not only that, but he went from an agency with 400 people to an agency with 3,100 people; one with a $60 million budget to one with a $1.18 billion budget.
And to top it all off, his first day on the job was his first day the new legislature came to town.
But he’s a quick learner and faced the challenge head-on. Opper had gained a reputation as a good manager and that helped him in the transition.
“Background and subject matter will come over time,” he said.
Plus, he said, the department had many people who knew the subject matter. The job of a leader, he said, is to get the best out of people. “To help them thrive in their job and enjoy their work and increase their productivity,” Opper said.
His leadership style is fairly relaxed and Opper said he tries to make the department a fun place to work. And he doesn’t mind mistakes, as long as people learn from them.
“I’m not as interested in disciplining people who make mistakes as I am in seeing how they address those mistakes,” he said. “Somebody who makes an error in judgment and learns from it … they’re more valuable than somebody who hasn’t made that error.”
He can’t tell you a specific person from whom he’s picked up that leadership trait. In fact, he can’t name a single person who’s been a role model. Instead, Opper lists as his role model: “All of them.”
“I try to pick up little hints of styles and approaches from everybody in a management position,” he said.
That includes everybody from the governor to people he supervises to national associations where he meets people in similar situations.
That helps him address challenges he faces in work, especially in this new position.
“There are so many issues related to health care,” he said.
Now, especially. Opper was disappointed that he couldn’t convince the state legislature to expand the Medicaid program to provide access to about 70,000 more Montanans that now use hospital emergency rooms for health care.
And, he said, he’d like to see the focus changed from health care to health.
“Health care,” he said, “is really how much access do you have for health care services. … We’re really concerned about the delivery of health care. I’d like to see us move more toward a focus on a healthy population.”
He believes that shift can move the state from a fee for service approach.
“If we focused more on trying to develop a healthier population, we’d be focusing a lot more on prevention, education in our schools to help stop teen pregnancies and STDs. We’d be focusing a lot more on smoking cessation activities, nutrition and trying to move children away from diet pop and sugar-laden food.”
That shift of focus to health is his biggest goal as director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.