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Green Chips has a conversation with Tom Perrigo, one of the original Co-Founders of Green Chips, as well as a great visionary and leader in our community through his work as Director of Planning at the City of Las Vegas.

January 19, 2016

As this is a feature about community leaders, what do you think makes a good leader?

Somebody who has vision and is collaborative; someone who can build trusting relationships to develop a shared vision, has passion, and inspires others to action.

Do you have a personal philosophy or approach to life?

Yes. I have a definition of success and my personal philosophy is value driven by how I define success and what my mission is as a leader. My definition of success is summed up in a poem that was given to me by a friend when I was in college. It is sometimes erroneously credited to Emerson but I have kept it by my side for the past 30 years and when my Dad passed away I was thinking about what I would say at his memorial. Somebody asked me if he was a successful man. I thought of this poem and recited  it there and it does a good job of capturing my feelings on success:

“What is success?
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and  the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.”

That has always stuck with me and defines my philosophy. In thinking further on what makes a good leader, I think about, Winston Churchill, who changed history but also had monumental failures throughout the course of his life. When visiting the school he attended in his youth, he told the students his now famous line: “Never, never, never, never give up.”  I also think of Nkosi Johson, a 7 year old boy who was born with Aids in South Africa when people with AIDS were treated like second class citizens. He spoke at the International Aids Conference, before hundreds of thousands of people and transformed how the world viewed people with AIDS. He was interviewed by a hardened war correspondent (who commented how moving the experience was); at the end of the interview, Nkosi said, “You didn’t ask me if I was afraid to die.” When the interviewer asked him, he said,”No, what’s important is that you do all that you can, with what you have, with the time you have, in the place that you are.” So, I share that with kids I coach. Look what this little kid, born into poverty, with a terminal disease did and look at us, with all that we have, what can we do? That’s leadership.

What was your major in college and your path to your current position?

My first paid job was surviving Minnesota winters by getting up to deliver newspapers at four in the morning in Minneapolis in the fifth grade. I think I counted one time that I have had over 30 jobs but it isn’t because I like to move from job to job, I’ve just always worked hard. Ever since that paper route in 5th grade, I’ve worked. I’ve worked in restaurants and laundromats and done construction, shoveled snow, and if I think about it I can probably come up with some doozies along the line. But, when I was in 11th grade, the principal and I agreed that school wasn’t the best place for me at the time. I worked construction, became a licensed electrician, but when I was 21 I decided I would rather go to college because my family placed a great value on education, everyone in my family had PhD’s, and law degrees, etc. I ended up with a Bachelor’s degree in Finance with a minor in Information Technology and I went to work for a ski resort in Colorado. From there, I came to Las Vegas to get a Masters in Economics and I have been here ever since and am grateful for it.

In terms of my path from there to my current position, during one of the final courses of my master’s program, I met an analyst with the City of Las Vegas who was leaving to start a family and she said it was a great opportunity with good security – at the time I was working for SAIC on federal projects, but liked the idea of a more stable career – sort of a tortoise versus the hare approach to building a career. When I came in to test for the job, there were probably 150 other applicants and I thought it was a long shot – especially when the person I sat next to was a PhD statistician from Michigan! I ended up getting the job and working in the Planning Department which lead to Deputy Director; my analytical skills and graduate school focus was on quantitative and regional economics so my ability to study and analyze city demographics during our boom years turned out to be an asset in helping to craft policy and plans so I was fortunate enough to work on issues at the legislature and setting policy direction for how we build and plan our city which launched me into higher levels of planning. Then one day, Doug Selby (former City Manager), sat me down and told me the city had established three pillars; one of which was sustainability. He asked me to focus on it and to help build an organization where sustainability is part of our values; part of our DNA – who we are. Fast forward to today and I can say we have succeeded. This City is sustainability. Thanks in large part to some very dedicated and capable folks who started out as interns and came along for the ride. We now have people in parts of the organization that have fully embraced sustainability as how we function; we’ve won multiple national awards, etc. By all accounts, Las Vegas, as a city, is recognized as a leader in sustainability.

Is there one word that best describes how you work?

Hard. I wish it was smart.

What keeps you engaged/passionate about your job; what drives you?

The opportunity to build a great community, to help inspire others and create a space where they can realize their goals. I consider that a real blessing. What some see as problems, I see as opportunities. There are just endless opportunities to build a community and make life better. It’s just everywhere. I only wish I had more time and more resources.

How do you re-charge?

I drink heavily! I recharge with activities – I play golf with Gary Wood to get some laughs in but also running, riding my bike, going on trips, etc. First and foremost, it’s spending time with family. Focusing on my immediate family.

What are you better at than anyone else and what is your secret?

I’m better at golf than Gary. I’m not better at humility than Gwen.

That’s a really good question and I think the best way to know is just to ask people. When I ask people who are willing to share with me, what I hear frequently is: vision and collaboration. Those are absolutely critical characteristics if you want to succeed as a Planning Director in a big city, so I think I would agree.

My secret? I think a lot of it is just your temperament. Your competencies and how you are wired. I don’t know what the secret is but once you have the vision, make sure that you value honest critics in your life. You have to have the people in your life that will raise their hand and say, “The Emperor has no clothes.” You have to vet your ideas and vision against those people and you have to work hard and do the research so that you can validate what you are doing with objective research. Collaboration is just obvious. Maybe for me, the secret is humility and just enough fear to not think you know exactly what you are doing. That way, at least if you go over a cliff, you can take a lot of people with you! Seriously though, it’s always better to surround yourself with diverse opinions and you will be so much better set up for success if you are collaborative.

Where are you from originally and what has surprised you the most about this community?

Born in Hudson. Minneapolis until 6th grade and then the Rocky Mountains.

When I moved here, I didn’t see it as a place where I would want to make my home and raise a family. At some point I transitioned to a point where I would proudly say I was from Las Vegas and since then, I am no longer surprised by what an amazing community this is: I’m not surprised to know what amazing outdoor recreation activities exist everywhere, I’m not surprised to know what fantastic entertainment options are here, I’m not surprised to know we are a community of caring individuals who are kind-hearted; none of that stuff surprises me so it’s a hard question to answer.

What is your biggest hope for this community in the next 10 years? 50?

My biggest hope is that the community recognizes how important it is to have me here and starts paying me lots and lots of money!  My biggest hope is that in the short term, we turn the corner on education and healthcare. Education is such a critical, important foundation of any community’s success in all areas and we need to solve that problem. Other than that, I think we are truly on a path of sustainability and a community that is much more of a community – with its own identity and character outside of the strip; I hope we become a community that is known as much for education as we are for entertainment and recreation.

What app or technical gadget can’t you live without?

In my job I can’t live without email or text messages because I have to be in constant communication with elected officials but that isn’t very exciting.

I can’t live without the Wahoo Fitness and Training Peaks apps. They help me track all my workout and fitness stats and a lot of information I never, ever look at but somehow it makes me feel better that I am capturing it. I also like S Health to track my steps.

What is the best advice you ever received and what would you tell young professionals starting out?

For me, it’s the great philosopher Tony Horton (from P90X), he says: “Do your best and forget the rest.”

What is your favorite word?

Wash. I had a friend who’s mom threw the “r” in there and I just love saying “warsh!” I will work “warsh” into every single thing that I can at anytime. I just love saying “warsh.”

Do you know your Meyer’s Briggs Personality type?

INTP (The Thinker)

Last question, what are you reading right now?

I read the zoning code every night – because I have to. On my shelf, you will find, the History of Neon in Las Vegas and the two books by Hawking: “A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.” I love physics but I have the hardest time with it so I read it all the time.

Get more information about the City of Las Vegas’ sustainability projects.