Pushing change through the government: An interview with White House and OMB veteran Lisa Brown


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February 8, 2013

Lisa Brown worked at the White House in senior roles during the Clinton and Obama administrations, including four years as deputy counsel and counsel to Vice President Gore, staff secretary to President Obama, and most recently at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as acting chief performance officer. She will assume the post of vice president and general counsel at Georgetown University on March 1. Brown spoke with Tom Fox, who is a guest writer for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section and vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

What motivated you to consider public service?

It actually started with my family. My father believed deeply in this country, and he instilled in me a strong patriotism and a belief in the values of this country — like liberty, equality and free speech. I literally remember growing up having conversations at the dinner table about how lucky we were to live in the United States with this system of government. My mother in turn was very clear that if you’re lucky enough to receive a good education and to have the opportunity, then part of your responsibility is to give back to help make the world and your community a better place. For me, it really comes down to helping our country live up to its promise, working on realizing the promise of creating a more perfect union.

What do you consider to be the top traits that lead to success as a government leader?

The first one has to be working well with career employees and understanding their importance and value. They come to the table with a huge amount of experience and institutional knowledge. The second is to set clear goals: articulate them with passion, but establish milestones and metrics and hold people accountable. Try to inspire the people who work with you, be very clear about your goals, and work with them as a team on the best way to accomplish your goals. The last thing, particularly for people coming from the private sector, is to understand the concept of shared power. In the executive branch, you work with Congress so you often can’t just do something unilaterally. You must understand and try to maximize that relationship. 

When thinking about your experience at the White House and then at the OMB, what do you wish you had known about your jobs and what advice do you have for your successor?

Entering public service the first time, I wish I had known the budget process. It’s sort of ironic that the last place I ended up is OMB, but to be a successful agency leader, you want to understand the budget process.

In terms of advice to somebody coming in, a lot of what I have been doing recently is about change management, and my main advice is to recognize that you cannot just impose change top down. That is probably true in any institution, but it’s certainly true in the government. You need to work with the people who are going to be impacted by it. Set broad goals and then bring them to the table and work through the details together. If you want to institutionalize change, you need the people implementing it to be committed to it because they were engaged in the process.

What advice would you give to aspiring young federal leaders?

When I was a young associate just starting out as a lawyer, a partner said to me, “Pretend that this case is yours and own it. Don’t just sit there and wait for me to tell you what to do. Try to think a step ahead of your boss.” It’s very important in government to think broadly. You have to get the politics and the communications of any issue. In whatever you’re doing, do your best and go the extra mile. You just never know who’s going to notice and put another opportunity in front of you.

Who are your leadership role models?

My role models for as long as I can remember have been President Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., for two reasons. One is for the values of justice and equality they stood for — they believed in the potential of this country and making it the best it could be. Second, they were strategic about how to accomplish their goals.

On the management side, I have learned from both people whom I’ve worked for and people who have worked for me. I’m still working on being a good manager, and it’s something people have to work hard at all the time. One thing you can never do too much of is to say thank you and express your appreciation to the people who work for you and for the work they are doing. It gets so busy and things move so fast, but think about the difference it makes when someone tells you that a project was really well done, or, “I know you spent too many hours on this, but it’s appreciated and valued.”

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