Nani Coloretti is the Department of the Treasury's assistant secretary for management. She previously helped establish the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and served as its acting chief operating officer. Coloretti spoke about her experiences and views on management with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. Can you tell me about a leadership responsibility you took on as a young person?
A. I was the director of an all-female sketch comedy group in college. We wrote and edited skits, casted for them and put on shows sort of like “Saturday Night Live.” There are a lot of management skills you learn being the director of a bunch of people who are funny and writing their own material. I learned to be on my toes and adaptable to whatever comes my way. Sometimes the costumes didn’t come on time and the curtain didn’t go up, but the show must go on.
Q. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced helping to start up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?
A. We were under incredible pressure, and only had one year to stand up the agency. The short timeline was the biggest challenge. I can think of many stressful moments, but I don’t think we could have done it any better given the time constraints.
Q. What approach did you take?
A. We started with the end in mind. The core team, along with help from outside leadership, had a strategic planning session where we tried to define exactly what things would look like the day we opened our doors. We created a start-up mentality, brought in great people from within and outside government, and got them to give 110 percent. We went from about a staff of 10 to 400 people, six divisions and a working Web site a year later.
Q. In your current position at Treasury, what are the most critical management challenges?
A. The most critical challenge that is facing the Treasury is also facing the entire federal government, and that is: How do you meet your mission and modernize your agency? Two huge added constraints on that are a large retirement wave and decreasing budgets, which make it even more difficult. At Treasury, 70 percent of our Senior Executive Service members are eligible to retire in the next five years. We have handled these issues in a couple of ways. We are transforming the way we do our business by using data and automation to better manage our agency. And on the personnel front, we are focusing on the leadership pipeline, workforce development and succession planning.
Q. Has there been a time when things went awry that ended up being an important leadership lesson for you?
A. Once, for an entire day, we basically had a complete email exchange failure, which meant that many of our employees could not access their email or files. It was on a weekend and caused by a power surge, but it was at the same time we were doing a major data-center consolidation. The people who manage the email exchange servers were the same people who were trying to consolidate our data centers and get us into a modernized environment with full disaster recovery. I learned that when you are transforming and doing a big systems change, you also still have to pay attention to the everyday basics.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring leaders?
A. Be curious as to why things are the way they are, so that you can change them for the better.
Q. Is there a particular area in which leaders should focus?
A. The most vital thing that a leader can do is communicate effectively. It’s important to be results driven, while also being able to communicate a vision in a way that’s going to be helpful to the workforce.
Q. What advice do you have for college students interested in business and finance who may be considering careers in public service?
A. There is no better place to apply financial skills than in the Treasury Department. There are very complicated things we try to do, and the constraints on resources often spur innovation. It’s hard to believe that would be the case, but people are creative and this is the kind of situation that really necessitates innovation. For young people, if they care about the mission, serving the public and making a difference, the federal government is the place to be.