An interview on leadership with USTDA Director Leocadia Zak

Leocadia I. Zak is director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), which is dedicated to encouraging economic growth in emerging markets and the export of U.S. goods and services to those markets. Zak spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership.

How has your previous work at the USTDA as general counsel and then deputy director influenced your leadership style?

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I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know and appreciate the outstanding staff at USTDA, which was of great value to me when I became director. It allowed me to recognize that every person at the agency plays a very important part in achieving the agency’s mission.

My style is very collaborative. I know that it is important for me to draw upon the expertise and talent of all our employees and to communicate frequently, effectively and on the broadest scale possible. Communication is encouraged up, down and sideways within the agency and to do that we must be easily available to each other. We encourage everyone to have an open door and be available for questions and comments and to provide assistance to one another.

I am hoping to create an environment where people can be creative and innovative and achieve their personal goals.

How do you ensure that employees stay focused on the mission of the agency?

One of the first things I did as director was to initiate a strategic planning process at the agency that engaged virtually every employee. Everyone plays a role here and should have a say in our goals and how we are going to meet them. 

I also instituted monthly all-staff meetings to allow various staff members to report on their current activities. These meetings also offer great opportunities to stop and ask questions such as: Are we achieving the things we set out to do at the beginning of the year? If we are not, why not? Furthermore, the meetings give us an opportunity to hear and address employee concerns. 

Our agency is known for being very nimble and flexible. How we conduct ourselves internally is the same. We have to react promptly to what the staff has brought to our attention.

How are the budget cuts affecting your agency?

USTDA is an independent agency that helps companies create U.S. jobs through the export of U.S. goods and services for priority development projects in emerging economies. For every dollar programmed by USTDA, the agency helps generate over $58 in U.S. exports. Right now, demand for our services outstrips available resources and our challenge is to be more creative using the resources we have. 

How are you fostering innovation?

Innovation is happening in our agency every day because of an environment which promotes employees’ constant search for new and better ways to conduct our programs and provide better customer service. As a result, there is innovation in every aspect of our operations. These innovations range from new initiatives to support the President’s National Export Initiative to the use of social media. Many of the ideas come directly from the workforce. Two years ago, we started an innovation award for employees. One of the things I like about it is that it’s not top down. The employees nominate their peers for the award and the nominees are evaluated by the employees who won the award the year before.

Where do you turn to for tips about leadership?

I am a true believer that knowledge is power. My education provided me with strong analytical skills and I read a lot. However, it is the people and challenges I encounter day to day that have taught me the most about leadership. I see leaders in the private sector and leaders in government and I love to watch them — observing what they are doing and how that fits with my personality and leadership style. Ultimately, a leader’s style must flow from the individual’s personality. It must be natural.

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