Berkeley Lab News Center Feature Story

June 23, 2008

The Optimism of David McGraw

Head of Ops Heads into Retirement with a Positive Outlook

By Lynn Yarris, 486-5375

David McGraw is retiring as Berkeley Lab’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Associate Laboratory Director (ALD) for Operations on June 27. His nearly 18 year-tenure here has been marked by a string of stiff challenges met and matched. Despite the difficulties faced, in taking stock of his career at the Laboratory McGraw says that he has been and continues to be an optimist.

He came to the Laboratory in January, 1991 from Apple Inc., named by then Berkeley Lab Director Chuck Shank to be the director of the Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) Division. His appointment came in the wake of Department of Energy (DOE) Tiger Team safety reviews, a rough period for the Laboratory as there were more than 1,000 findings that had to be corrected. As head of EH&S, the burden of response to the Tiger Team findings fell upon him.

“We cleared every last one of them,” said McGraw, who developed a safety “scorecard” that let other division directors at the Laboratory know how they were or weren’t performing in their respective safety oversight functions.

Said Director Shank at that time, “David led a revolution at this Laboratory in understanding our perceptions and our responsibilities for integrating EH&S into the work we do.”

In 2005, McGraw played a central role in the University of California’s successful competition for the management contract of Berkeley Lab. The Lab had gone 75 years without competition for its management contract and then it was thrust into the role of test-case for the awarding by DOE of future “performance-based” contracts.

“What I found amazing is that this sort of competition had never been done before, it was unplowed territory,” McGraw said at the time. “We didn’t really know whether or not we had a competitor, so we decided to compete against our own high standards, and it was done remarkably well.”

Following the winning of the contract, Steve Chu, who’d succeeded Shank as Berkeley Lab director only a few months earlier, announced his new management team and in doing so added a new title for McGraw, that of ALD for Operations. This past spring, as ALD for Ops, McGraw’s leadership was again a big factor in the contract performance grades that resulted in the DOE Berkeley Lab Site Office recommending that the Laboratory’s management contract with UC be extended.

McGraw credits much of his success to having had on his management team “great people who take professional pride in their work.” He has always been a strong proponent of what he calls “risk-informed decision-makers,” which he defines as “individuals who are not afraid to take risks that are based on knowledge.” The current leadership of Ops, whom he recruited, consists of the type of  knowledgeable risk-informed decision-makers that he prizes.

“There is no genius to leading people,” he once said. “You get the best and brightest that you can . . . make clear what your expectations are, and get out of their way. And if you’re really smart, hire people who are better than you.”

Also crucial to his success at the Laboratory, he says, has been the strong support of Berkeley Lab leaders, such as “Chuck Shank, Klaus Berkner, Sally Benson and Steve Chu,” and the “opportunities” that have been provided to him by the Lab’s sponsors in DOE’s Office of Science.

“This convergence of fine people, the Laboratory Director’s support, and sponsor opportunities gives me great cause for optimism about the future of Operations at this Laboratory,” said McGraw.

To the list of his proudest accomplishments during his career here, in addition to his roles in winning the 2005 management contract and the extension that followed three years later, McGraw reserves a prominent spot for the role he played in the development and implementation by DOE of a model for Integrated Safety Management (ISM), in which safety programs were made much more effective by closely integrating them with the work and linking them to safety standards and solid business principles.

“I would like to see all of Operations managed according to good business principles as opposed to DOE orders,” McGraw said. “I don’t fool myself into thinking that this is a panacea, because even ISM can become overly bureaucratized, but I am optimistic if I take the long view.  This approach makes sense and would be fiscally a more responsible use of the nation’s resources.

McGraw is not only optimistic about the future of Operations at Berkeley Lab, he is also optimistic about the future of Berkeley Lab itself. The principal reason behind this optimism is Director Chu.

“It’s funny, but it seems like the Laboratory always seems to find the director that it needs for the times,” he said. “Chuck Shank was a wonderful manager when that was exactly what the Laboratory needed. Steve Chu is a visionary, which is what we all need now. Those who are going to be here working under Steve’s direction in the coming years should consider themselves very lucky for they’re going to be a part of history.”

History has been one McGraw’s great interests in life, as has travel. In retirement, he and his wife Debbie plan to combine these two interests. They are currently enrolled in Italian classes, and a French immersion class is next. A long trip, from the island of Sicily up the Italian boot to Tuscany, is in the immediate future.

When asked how he would like to be remembered by the Laboratory community, McGraw had this to say, “I hope they will say I was tough and had high standards, but that I was fair and that my door was always open.”

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