Heather Higginbottom is deputy secretary for management and resources at the State Department. She previously served as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. Higginbottom spoke about the challenges of managing the State Department 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. When is a time you took on a leadership responsibility as a young person?
A. The most formative experiences I had growing up were around organized and competitive sports, and this involved being a part of a team, figuring out how to excel, how to be a leader and how to stand out. That was really important in building confidence and figuring out my role. In soccer I played a midfield position, which does a lot of organizing and defending. So I found a really comfortable place for me, which was to set people up to score goals and to try to prevent the other team from getting the ball. You have a lot of control in that position and I really liked it.
Q. What are your most critical management challenges at the State Department?
A. Our biggest challenge is delivering on our mission when our resources are either flat or decreasing. We are looking for inefficiencies, making trade-offs and trying to identify certain activities that we can cut back on. At the same time, the people who work here feel this obligation to our mission, which is preventing wars, trying to promote economic growth and combat terrorism. What do you stop doing when those trade-offs can have real consequences to both American citizens and people around the world?
Q. What are you doing at State to strengthen your career leaders?
A. A couple of weeks ago, Secretary John Kerry sent out a message to all of our staff around the world articulating some fundamental leadership principles that included being decisive, owning your decisions and being a team player. We want to make sure that these are woven into everything we do. Just an email from the secretary, of course, will not be the end of the process, but it is something we are paying renewed attention to and trying to integrate in a lot of our work. We also have a robust leadership program through the Foreign Service Institute, which is our training center.
Q. How is the State Department recruiting and hiring young people?
A. We get an enormous number of applications for people to join the Foreign Service. We have a lot of outreach programs to ensure that we are encouraging people to pursue careers at the State Department. One is a program called Hometown Diplomats. When State Department employees go to their hometowns or visit somewhere domestically, they can do public speaking events. We also have a Diplomats in Residence program where our Foreign Service officers, who are former ambassadors as well as other senior and mid-level officers working full time at universities, talk with students on campuses. Another area is diversity recruitment. We’ve had a good trend in some respects for Latinos and African Americans, but it’s an area that we are all committed to doing more on. We want the State Department to project the image of America when we are around the world doing our work; it’s important to have a diverse workforce.
Q. Did you ever have a situation that didn’t go as planned, but actually ended up being an important leadership lesson?
A. The biggest thing for me occurred during my time at the Office of Management and Budget. I put a number of events in one big bucket, although they happened at different points in time — the planning for the government shutdown, the sequestration and the fiscal crises in 2011 and 2012. At OMB, we had a responsibility to help plan for the government-wide impact of those things. We also had a stressed workforce. That experience taught me not to take the well-being of our employees for granted. They understood the consequences of these different things, but they were still sitting there saying, “What does this mean for me?”
Q. Who have been your role models and what lessons did they teach you?
A. The very first job I had out of college was working at Communities in Schools, and the founder of that organization had incredible passion for his work. I walked away from that experience realizing that a real leader conveys that passion, inspires others, and makes you believe that every single day you can make change.
We have really big responsibilities and a lot of competing demands in government, whether it’s resource constraints or congressional requests or interests. It’s important to understand just how hard these jobs can be for people. Our employees take on this work with good intentions, and they don’t always see that reflected back to them, whether it’s in the heat of a political moment or in the political debate on foreign policy. I think that has a real impact on peoples’ morale and it is something we have to — as leaders — be very attentive to.