Talking leadership with Gene L. Dodaro

May 10, 2011
GAO head discusses lessons, leadership

U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro is head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the “congressional watchdog,” GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. Comptroller General Dodaro helps oversee the development and issuance of hundreds of reports and testimonies each year to various committees and members of Congress. An employee of GAO since 1973, he has held a number of key executive posts, including chief operating officer.

What lessons have you learned from your previous positions within GAO, and how are you applying them as comptroller general?

An important part of my job is spending time getting to know the people — what motivates them, their strengths — and being able to match their strengths with institutional needs to help them grow and develop as employees, leaders and managers of the organization. I’ve found in managing a large organization with a diverse portfolio of work and hundreds of reports and testimonies put out every year that unless you have the right person for the job, we’re not going to produce the highest and most optimal results for the Congress and for the country. At least 75 percent of success is picking the right person for the right job.

Since we support Congress in carrying out its constitutional responsibilities, I also think it’s important to understand members’ and staff’s top priorities, what their needs are and how to deliver the best services to them. I’ve carried this forward into my current position by meeting with as many members as I can, particularly the chairs and ranking members of committees, and being the most responsive to meeting their needs and helping improve the performance and accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.

What were the challenges to serving in an “acting” position, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge is not being viewed as a caretaker, as opposed to somebody who’s moving the agency forward by actively pursuing initiatives to improve management and take the agency to new frontiers. While I was in an acting capacity, the country went through the most difficult financial time since the Depression and World War II, so it was important for me to step forward and take the agency into new areas and produce good results for the Congress.

How do you keep your employees motivated and engaged?

People come to GAO, and many stay here, because the work is so interesting. We’re working on the most important national issues and issues of critical importance to the Congress and the country, which is motivating in and of itself. Still, you have to create a work environment where people can always feel that they’re learning, growing professionally and receiving continuing education. At GAO, you work with a lot of interesting, talented people, so it’s a stimulating environment. We offer great workplace flexibilities — telework is important to us, as are flexible work schedules and family-life-balance issues. We have a day-care facility and fitness center available on-site, and we try to provide an environment where people can adapt as modern-day parents.

How do you surface ideas and problems within GAO?

We create management improvement teams and groups to look at ideas such as using technologies to modernize our products and improving our internal operations to make things more efficient. For example, in modernizing our communication techniques, such teams recommended setting up e-reports that are more easily navigated and creating audio podcasts, as well as a YouTube channel and Twitter account. We’ve also made our Web site accessible through mobile devices so that people can get GAO reports easily, because many people are getting their information through mobile devices. Those ideas are coming from employees, who are involved at all levels of the organization to make GAO a better place to work and more effective.

What are you doing to identify and hire the best and brightest?

We have a very effective national recruiting program where we go to a lot of the top schools around the country and meet annually with an educator’s advisory group made up of deans of many of these schools who come and give us advice. We also have a very robust intern program. Additionally, we seek out a lot of diversity in our workplace, so we also work with organizations that represent minority populations. Right now, 30 percent of the organization is made up of minorities, and 57 percent are women.

Since today’s workforce is more mobile than they have been in the past, it’s important to do recruiting at all levels. While entry-level is still our primary vehicle, we have recruiting strategies at all levels of the organization, including at the SES level. And actually, in many cases we rehire people who came to GAO, loved it and are ready to come back. They have had other experiences, which enriches their ability to be effective for GAO.

Visit On Leadership at views.washingtonpost.com/leadership/fedcoach . There are three weekly installments:

Mondays: “Getting Ahead” — advice on “leading up.”

Wednesdays: “View From the Top Floor” — interviews with federal leaders.

Fridays: Answering questions about navigating the federal workforce terrain.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post’s On Leadership site produce the Federal Coach, hosted by Tom Fox, director of the partnership’s Center for Government Leadership. The goal is to “engage, inspire and learn from you, the federal worker, whether you are a new hire, a contractor or a manager at the highest level.”

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