Thomas E. Perez is the 26th secretary of the Labor Department. Previously, he served for nearly four years as the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice, leading the same division where he worked for a decade as a career federal employee. Perez spoke about leadership, public service and managing the Department of Labor 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. My parents both came to the United States from the Dominican Republic, and they were deeply grateful for the opportunities this country provided. They raised my siblings and me to want to make a difference and give back. They taught us to work hard and aim high, but to also make sure the ladder was down to help others climb up. Public service has allowed me to put values my parents taught me into action.
Q. Your career has been dedicated to protecting civil and human rights and now labor rights. What led you in this direction?
A. I think one of the most important things we can do for people is to expand opportunity – whether it’s the opportunity to live a life free of discrimination, or the opportunity to get a good job that provides a gateway to the middle class. I’ve dedicated my career to expanding opportunity, and it’s proven incredibly rewarding. I wake up every day with a hop in my step, just as I have done in every job I’ve had, because I get to go to work and help people access the American Dream.
Q. What is your leadership and management philosophy? How are you conveying this philosophy to the workforce at Labor?
A. I’ve been fortunate to serve as both a career staffer and a political appointee, and my experiences have taught me a lot about effective leadership. I’ve learned that it’s important to listen to employees at all levels, to engage them, to empower them. Whether you’re a first-line supervisor or the head of an entire agency, you should be asking career staffers: “What do you think?”
Q. What steps are you taking to engage your workforce, which has expressed low levels of satisfaction in past federal employee surveys?
A. We have a lot of work to do to boost morale, and that’s been a priority for me from day one. We’re doing a lot of listening, and a lot of responding. We brought back awards, which were mothballed for years, and added some new ones to reward innovation. We’re aggressively increasing opportunities for growth – everyone now has the opportunity to take up to 40 hours a year for professional development and training opportunities. We’re spending a lot of time improving telework policies and on other work-life balance issues.
Q. What are the biggest impediments to getting things done in government? How are you finding ways to overcome these obstacles?
A. Any large organization has its challenges, but I think one of the most pressing organizational challenges we face in the federal government right now is continuity. An aging workforce means waves of retirees will soon be leaving – at DOL and across the board – and we risk losing critical institutional knowledge if we’re not prepared. But austerity has consequences, and a lack of funding to replenish our federal workforce could have serious consequences in the near future. This is first economic recovery that I am aware of where government hiring has actually gone down. That means we’ve been unable to bring in the next generation of federal workers to fill the void that will be left as people retire.
Q. If there were two things you could do to reform the federal civil service system, what would they be?
A. Public service is among the most rewarding career paths you can choose. That doesn't mean there aren't things we could do to better enable America's civil servants to meet their mission. Government functions best when employees have input in their work, are encouraged to come up with new ways of doing things, and can develop and grow in their jobs. That’s why one of my biggest priorities has been to make sure that my entire leadership team is engaging their employees in meaningful ways, listening to feedback, and making changes wherever we can.
Another area where government can and should lead is in workplace flexibility. Government agencies were among the first workplaces to provide on-site child care centers, which can be incredibly valuable to employee morale and productivity. And thanks to technology, there are so many other ways that we can provide the flexibility that working families need. That means supporting flexible work schedules and expanding telework. When implemented properly, these are not only family friendly, they also have a positive impact on how we meet our mission.
Q. Have you had a situation that went awry but ended up being an important leadership lesson?
A. The case I am most proud of from my time as a career prosecutor at the Department of Justice was actually a case that resulted in an acquittal. It was a very high-profile case that we knew from the outset would be difficult to win. But we strongly believed that the defendant had committed the crime, and justice demanded that the case be brought.
I learned that you should never shy away from tough challenges or calculated risks, and never hesitate to roll up your sleeves in the effort. The only real failures are the failure to try or the failure to learn from your experiences. We don’t go around bragging about our failures, but they are often our most formative experiences. As Steve Jobs told graduates at Stanford in 2005, when discussing his very public firing from Apple 10 years after he founded the company, “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.”
Q. Are there any key experiences that helped shaped your views on leadership?
A. Working for and learning from remarkable leaders have provided valuable lessons in leadership. In particular, working for Donna Shalala and Ted Kennedy enabled me to see effective leadership in action. They believed in hiring good people, giving them latitude to operate, clearly communicating a vision of what we were to accomplish. They were inclusive, creative and excellent listeners. They had tremendous talent in working across an ideological spectrum to forge solutions to vexing challenges, and recognized that idealism and pragmatism were not mutually exclusive, and principled compromise is not a four letter word.
From them, I learned that prepositions matter (my DOL colleagues work with me, not for me); active listeners are the best leaders; it's nice to be important, but it's important to be nice; and it’s amazing how much one can accomplish when you don't worry about who gets the credit.