Mike Rigsby oversaw the largest soft-ground bored tunnel in the U.S., the flagship segment of one of the nation’s largest-ever infrastructure projects. And yet, for a man with serious bona fides, the word most repeated by colleagues to describe him is “humble.”
“Many people made bigger contributions than I did,” says Rigsby of his work as WSP senior vice president and project director for WSDOT’s $4.2-billion Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project.
After graduating in 1975 from the U.S. Military Academy with a bachelor’s degree, Rigsby served as a paratrooper and held assignments in the Army’s 101st Airborne in Ft. Campbell, Ky., Germany and Desert Storm. He also commanded an elite airborne battalion at Fort Bragg and the Army Corps of Engineers District in Seattle. And that’s just the first half of his career.
Growing up in Weaver, Ala., Rigsby gained exposure to the armed forces from his father, an “enlisted man” in the army for 23 years. As Rigsby’s high school graduation approached, the Vietnam War raged and the draft loomed.
“If I thought I was going to be drafted, I’d like to go with the best training I could get and thought that West Point would provide that,” says Rigsby, recalling his draft number: 330. “I just thought it would be a great opportunity for a first-rate education.”
During his 25 years in the Corps of Engineers, Rigsby used that opportunity to his full advantage. He earned a master’s in operations research from the Georgia Institute of Technology; a master’s in international relations from Salve Regina College; a master’s in national security strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College; and attended the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, the military’s PhD-level course program.
“In all of those schools, there was some part of leadership training and some technical training, and I was always fortunate that the army continued to invest in that and gave me opportunities to further my education as my experience went up along with it,” says Rigsby, who’s career achievements include oversight of megaprojects around the globe.
In Doha, Qatar, from 2011 to 2014, Rigsby acted as program director on a local roads and drainage program, and, on behalf of the country’s public works authority, known as Ashghal, he delivered 225 projects worth $35 billion.
“The large infrastructure projects can make a big difference in the lives of people and communities they are in and are a big force of positive change in our communities, and that’s what motivates me,” says Rigsby.
Seattle Infrastructure Fix
He is particularly proud of his work on the Seattle viaduct replacement, a 20-year project initiated after the 2001 Nisqually magnitude-6.7 earthquake, which rattled the Puget Sound region and set off assessments that found that many Seattle-area structures needed seismic upgrades, including the viaduct, which the quake damaged.
“It was a real wake-up call for the region, and they realized the viaduct truly presented a public safety risk that had to be addressed,” says Rigsby. “The thing that was so energizing about that project was that we came to work every day knowing we were addressing an urgent public safety concern.”
Rick Conte, a West Point graduate and Sound Transit’s deputy director of construction management, crossed paths with Rigsby many times over their 40-year careers, but they first met 20 years ago when they both came to Seattle with the Corps of Engineers.
“Right off the bat, he impressed me,” says Conte. “He was very quiet and humble. I felt almost like—boy these civilians are going to run over this guy—he doesn’t know what he’s in for. He seemed to sit back and listen a lot and he was very observant. And he really worked hard to understand the organization and its roles and responsibilities of the people in it.”
Jeanine Viscount, WSP vice president and principal project manager, met Rigsby in 2000 when they were both “new kids on the block” in the fully established Seattle office of Parsons Brinckerhoff, bought in 2014 by WSP. As the project’s pursuit manager, Viscount was charged with building the team for the viaduct replacement. Rigsby’s experience and expertise made him a prime choice.
“That was the largest contribution I ever made to the Seattle area was to get Mike plugged in,” says Viscount, who describes Rigsby as schedule driven and decisive, but open to listening to as many options as necessary to broker solutions that allow projects to move forward.
The viaduct replacement required Rigsby to navigate between two co-leading government entities, the city of Seattle and WSDOT, often with opposing goals. Rigsby brought the technical data to the table but with a negotiator’s prowess to move the project forward, says Viscount.
The biggest challenge didn’t come from the technicalities of building the world’s largest bored tunnel, but from developing unanimity between stakeholders in deciding what actually was “going to be built,” Rigsby says. “It’s really being able to bring and develop consensus with the elected officials and general public that you have the right solution.” It took the public and government officials 10 years to agree to that plan, he adds.
Rigsby says that no matter whether in the military or private sector, all project managers deal with scope, schedule, budget, leadership, communication and team building. But key cultural nuances, whether a foreign country’s government or a local municipality’s agency, vary in how they affect the application of those similarities.
“I think the culture you establish on the project team is probably the most important thing on the project manager can do,” says Rigsby, who says communication of expectations is key to creating a positive culture and winning team buy-in. “My basic belief is that people come to work every day and they want to do a good job, and as leader you need to be able to explain to them what that looks like and show them they are making progress.”
With the mantra “who else needs to know,” Rigsby hosted large meetings on project progress, says Conte, who recalls asking why so many people were present. Each week, Rigsby brought a list to the meeting, checked things off, and added to the list. “Everybody in that room had something on that list they had to address,” says Conte. “My observation of him is that he facilitated active engagement by everybody—kind of in the background all the time. He always managed to get people to work collaboratively whether they knew they were doing it or not.”
Rigsby also hosted a monthly hail and farewell, a military tradition to celebrate the comings and goings of colleagues. He thanked and praised people leaving and welcomed new staff.
“It was always refreshing to see, and have that pause in what was a very stressful project to recognize people,” says Conte. “He could be pretty demanding too. He wasn’t a pushover—he had high standards and expected people to meet those standards—and if you weren’t cutting it, you didn’t stay on the team for very long.”
Tareq Alzeer, WSDOT assistant local programs engineer, worked with Rigsby on the viaduct replacement project for nearly 10 years, from when the project was in preliminary planning. With energy and kindness, Rigsby brought his military style to the private sector, and Alzeer recalls yet another meeting where Rigsby lined up engineers to present sectional proposals in a limited time.
“In one hour, he produced more than anybody could produce in 10 hours,” says Alzeer, who notes that Rigsby did so with kind words and respect. “He was guiding the meeting with full command—just incredible. He was moving managers like moving traffic.”
While his colleagues commend his ability to bring order to meetings and groups to consensus, he is also known for his attention to and encouragement of individual development and achievement. As a leader, Rigsby wants employees to come to the office energized and empowered and believes clear communication of expectations is key.
“I think one of the most important things is to have a positive view of people, and it’s very important to look at people and think they are willing to do everything they can to meet your expectations if you let them know clearly what you want them to do and why it’s important,” Rigsby says.
Under Rigsby, each person has an opportunity to flourish, in part because of Rigsby’s ability to place employees in positions where they could be successful even if it was a push.
“He has an emotional intelligence that he can assess people quickly and their abilities,” says Conte, who notes that in a competitive market for project talent, Rigsby’s success rate on getting the right people on the job hovered around 95%.
Alzeer agrees and cites Rigsby’s appreciation for the people who work with and for him, which motivates his workers to perform. On his first day on the viaduct replacement project, Alzeer knew no one. “I didn’t know he was a big shot. And he knew my name, he knew what position I was in and shook my hand and welcomed me.”
For all his achievements, Rigsby is most proud of the lasting connections he made with colleagues. “I still have a lot of people that have come to me for career advice and stay in touch,” says Rigsby.
“Nothing makes me happier than seeing people who have worked for me going on to bigger and better things and achieve their potential,” he says.