It’s been said by many people that the greatest gift you can ever give someone is your time. If that is the measure of a good person, then Kevin Boshears was by far one of the greatest people you could ever encounter. I’ve thought about that a lot since learning the sudden news that the former director of the DHS Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization passed on December 22 from a battle with cancer.
I consider myself one of those who was a beneficiary of his time. In the early days of DHS being stood up as a cabinet department, Kevin was like everyone else at the department – a transplant from someplace else. Coming from the establishment of Treasury, Kevin was an experienced hand at the levers of the federal bureaucracy – especially as it pertained to the arcane and often byzantine nuances associated with procurement. That experience, combined with what I can only call the patience of Job and warm and welcoming demeanor of Mr. Rogers, made him an anomaly. Where you had a lot of people with sharp elbows looking to throw their weight around in a brand new place and looking to be seen and heard, Kevin was the person in the room standing back, taking it all in, hearing everything that was being said, and doing something that he was exceptionally good at: listening.
By being willing to simply sit down with anyone and hear what they had to say, Kevin could take everything in and offer a path forward. Think of that: the simplest of acts – listening – he elevated into an art form in an environment not exactly built or tuned to do those things.
Kevin’s leadership style was a smile, a handshake, and then an extended right arm motioning to you to take a seat at the table in his office to hear what was on your mind. As often as I experienced this firsthand when I was part of DHS’ Private Sector Office, I watched it unfold time and again with countless numbers of small and minority-owned businesses that I and many others took into his office to meet with him or members of the OSDBU team.
In the early years of DHS, you had any number of businesses tripping over themselves trying to get in the Department to sell whatever it was that would solve all of DHS’ problems if we bought them right there and now – and if we bought them at that exact moment, they would solve all of the next year’s, too!
I’m sure that has not changed a lot in the 20 years of DHS’ existence, but in the disposition of those often churning and cavitating seas, Kevin was always willing, regardless of day or night, to sit down, take a call, or send a note to help people out.
I remember at one of the several lunches we shared I asked him about his background and dedication to what he did to help small businesses. While he had a quiet and, you might even describe, shy demeanor, Kevin was passionate about his mission and how it could serve the department. He knew that DHS had scores of people who could serve its mission inside the department, but he also knew that there were often even more creative solution sets and solvers outside of it that could contribute to its homeland security mission. Those were people for whom he wanted to help make things happen.
In the early days of DHS, that type of thinking was a rarity and it made him even more unique and special at his job.
Kevin also credited that he came from a family of entrepreneurs: parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins and siblings who were all small-business owners themselves. Being family to people like that more than qualified him to be able to listen, understand, coach and encourage others who wanted to or were doing the same. His empathy and understanding stood out and for all the right reasons.
It was also the reason that whenever Kevin was offered an invitation to speak to a small-business audience he took it. Everyone’s time is limited, and when you lead the small-business shop for the newest cabinet department your time is even more scarce and valuable. Kevin knew that but he also knew he had a charge to listen, engage and share whatever guidance and direction he could, and Kevin did it with open ears, an earnest heart and inviting ways.
There are countless examples in his career where he did that, and while I don’t have any official records to cite or quote I’m more than willing to bet there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small businesses Kevin helped support that have made a world of difference to DHS, Treasury and the citizenry and missions they serve.
One example I do know where I saw this firsthand was at the height of the dysfunctional response during the first weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit. Amidst the blistering media coverage of those days, there were a group of notable minority community leaders who were more than scalding in their comments about how recovery support and debris removal contracts were to be awarded. Several of these persons, without ever meeting or even engaging Kevin, singled him out personally for verbal attack.
Rather than hide under his desk or do the often government executive response – ignore them and hope they go away – Kevin traveled to Baton Rouge, La., where the Joint Field Office (JFO) was headquartered and met with them. Now Kevin could have easily sent a deputy or someone else from the regional government offices to go meet with these angry leaders. But that was not his style. Kevin knew it was on him to address their issues and he would be there to hear what they had to say.
I confess when I ran into him at the JFO, I was surprised to see him. I also felt truly sorry for him as the verbal attacks on him by these leaders had more than crossed the lines. When I asked how he was holding up, Kevin smiled and said he was doing OK but knew there was a lot of work to do to help people out. Others, he said, had far bigger challenges than he had at the moment. His thoughts were with them and he wanted to help.
Shortly after this exchange, I remember it was Kevin and one or two others with him who had set up in a makeshift conference room (the JFO had set up in a closed department store) as this ensemble of minority leaders entered to meet with him and have their say.
Given the various media moments that the post-Katrina environment brought about, a number of us thought we would be seeing another unfold. Much to our surprise, an hour or so later, those same minority community leaders left that meeting with their temperatures cooled, smiles on their faces, and saying as they exited the room, “Thank you, Kevin, for sharing that with us. We look forward to working with you.”
Having another meeting to go to in the building, I ended up following behind one of these notable persons and a colleague of theirs into a small elevator. As they recounted their just concluded meeting, the aide said to the notable, “That was a good meeting. Who was that guy we met with again?”
The notable reached into his pocket and handed over a business card to him. “His name was Kevin Boshears. He heard us out and listened. He even gave me his personal cell phone number to call if there were any other issues. Good on him. We can work with him.”
Kevin’s investment of his time, his listening and his willingness to act had won the day. I guess I should not have been surprised having seen him do this before but with the stakes so high with what was happening with Katrina, it was a reminder of how powerful investing time and listening really are.
As I got the news of Kevin’s passing on the drive back from New York after a visit with my wife’s family over the Christmas holiday, that moment in Baton Rouge almost two decades old came to mind. It was a powerful example of the leadership and character that were the noble public servant that was Kevin Boshears and how fortunate I and others were to benefit from his time and friendship.
And it’s why his loss is heartbreaking in so many ways. For a man who invested so much time in others, Kevin was afforded too little of it given his recent retirement from federal service.
In speaking with him prior to his retiring and to congratulate him on his career of public service, I asked him what he planned to do.
“I’m going to take some time off, but I want to continue to work with small businesses,” he said. “It’s what I’m good at and it makes a difference.”
It was, and Kevin was good at it, too. His investments of time and care are testament to a life of difference and impact and that’s what people will always think of when you say the name “Kevin Boshears.”