Carrie Hessler-Radelet was recently confirmed as director of the Peace Corps, after serving as the agency’s acting director and deputy director. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980s, and worked for many years on global health initiatives. Hessler-Radelet spoke about leading today’s Peace Corps 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. What drew you to public service?
A. I grew up in a family that valued public service. They weren’t government workers, but worked more in a nonprofit or volunteer capacity. From a very early age, I remember my parents and grandparents being civil rights activists and involved in poverty reduction. When I was a kid, we often spent weekends doing service. I come from a Peace Corps family. My aunt was a volunteer in the early 1960s, my grandparents were volunteers in the early 1970s, my husband and I served in Samoa in the early 1980s, and my nephew completed his service in 2009 in Mozambique. My family also has been very involved in Special Olympics since its founding. I founded the Special Olympics in The Gambia when I lived there after my Peace Corps service.
Q. What are your top priorities for the Peace Corps?
A. Supporting volunteers is always my top priority. We are also working to increase the reach of the Peace Corps. We want to recruit the best and the brightest of the American people, and we want to recruit a diverse volunteer force that reflects our beautiful multi-cultural nation.
Q. How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the organization and motivate your employees?
A. More than half of our staff are returned volunteers, so they feel deeply attached to our mission. It is important to make sure that all of our employees understand that their contributions are valued. I randomly select a group of non-managerial staff to have lunch with once a week. It is an opportunity to listen and learn, and it gives them an opportunity to ask questions and share some of their great ideas.
We also have a leadership development academy. It's a year-long process where mid-level employees take on projects of critical agency importance. They take their results to senior leadership and we act upon their recommendations. We also take the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey very seriously. We want to be a very high performing learning organization that provides tools and support for people to be their very best.
Q. Is it difficult managing an organization that has people spread across the globe?
A. It can be a challenge, and I spend a lot of time communicating with people. I work regularly with our regional directors – we have 66 country programs divided into three regions. I make an effort to get out to our three regions abroad and do a lot of recruitment events domestically with our staff to support their work. I work closely with the regional directors and frequently participate in phone calls and emails with them. We also have regional country director conferences every year, so it's an opportunity for all the country directors to get together and I always attend those. I'm on a plane nearly every week traveling domestically and internationally. Supporting volunteers is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year job.
Q. One of the unique characteristics of the Peace Corps is the five year rule. Tell me about its benefits and limitations.
A. Most Peace Corps employees are limited to a maximum of five years of employment in the agency. The framers of the agency were really persistent that we not become a bureaucracy and ensure staff remain fresh and innovative like our volunteers. There are some limitations. These include limited institutional memory and frequent staffing vacancies. For example, we have difficulty attracting IT talent. We also have trouble attracting doctors for only five years. There are a couple of offices that have wavered from the rule when specialists’ knowledge is essential to the safety of our volunteers.
Q. How else have you seen the Peace Corps adapt to changing times?
A. The world has changed a lot since the Peace Corps was founded 53 years ago. Our volunteers, even in the smallest villages and communities, are using technology for development. I would also say the use of social media has enabled us to tell our story more effectively and promote cross-cultural understanding in a way that was not possible before. Our volunteers are blogging, Skyping and using Twitter.
Q. Are Peace Corps volunteers the same as they've always been?
A. Volunteers today at their core are similar. They really want to make a difference in their communities. However, technology has definitely changed the way our volunteers communicate with each other and with their communities. It also means they are tethered to the U.S. When I was a volunteer, we had to write aerograms in order to communicate with family. Volunteers now can talk on the phone every night with their families.