Martin Gruenberg is the acting chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Prior to his tenure at the FDIC, Gruenberg served as senior counsel to Senator Paul Sarbanes and also served as staff director of the Banking Committee's Subcommittee on International Finance and Monetary Policy. For the first time, the FDIC was ranked number one on this year’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government list of 33 large agencies, moving up two slots from 2010. Most notably, the FDIC’s Best Places to Work score increased 8.5 percent since 2010, which is the largest improvement for any large agency. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.
How do you to keep your employees engaged in FDIC’s mission and work?
The great strength of the agency is that it has a very clear and understandable mission, and that mission is to insure the deposits that people have in federally insured financial institutions. If you look back over this crisis, the role that the FDIC and deposit insurance played in maintaining public confidence in the banking system, even during the most stressful times, was really quite critical. I think our employees really do understand the mission and how what they do relates to it.
Looking through the responses to the survey, over 90 percent of our employees said they understood the mission and goals of the agency and how their work relates to it. Also, over 90 percent of our employees said they felt that the work they do is important. As a motivation for people to work hard and with a real sense of dedication and purpose, that’s really critical.
How will you continue to maintain your gains in the Best Places to Work rankings moving forward?
Most fundamentally, the mission and the commitment of our employees to the mission remain. That’s what I think will help to maintain our performance. We have also made very significant efforts in the past two years to improve communication with all employees from top down and sustaining that two-way communication. Giving clear direction so that employees know what we’re doing and why we’re trying to do it—and to make sure there’s a two-way street so we can get feedback from employees—is the real, ongoing challenge to sustain.
What other initiatives have you undertaken that will help sustain FDIC’s performance?
We’ve had a whole culture change initiative here at the FDIC, and as part of that initiative, we established the Culture Change Council, which is made up of employees from all divisions and levels of the agency, and is charged with developing ideas. It focuses on communication and empowerment of employees. They have the task of developing initiatives to address those issues, as well as serving as a vehicle for employees to communicate with the council to help generate ideas. We’ve created an institution made up of employees from all levels to take in our ideas and generate new ideas. I think it has proven effective and is highly valued by the employees.
What did you learn about leadership working on the Hill, and how have you applied this knowledge at FDIC?
I spent most of my career before joining the FDIC on the Hill, and what I learned was very applicable here. Working on the Senate committee with the other members on both sides of the aisle, there was a real emphasis in trying to find common ground that could produce legislation. [You also had to work] with the interest groups, industry and consumer groups, as well as with the regulatory agencies and executive branch agencies, all of which had interests to be considered and developed in legislation. All through the process, you’re trying to work with those parties to find the basis for common ground, in order to move legislation forward. It’s really the critical challenge in working for the committee. Those lessons were very applicable here at the FDIC, both in working with different divisions to find solutions to problems and then working effectively with the other regulatory agencies as well as the interests of outside parties.
What do you consider to be a critical event, educational or experiential, that contributed to making you the leader you are today?
If I had to point to one thing, it was the opportunity to work for Senator Sarbanes for an extended period of time. He was a remarkable public servant, and I learned so many lessons from him that I’ve been able to apply at the FDIC. The key lessons were: the importance of preparation and knowing the issues that you’re responsible for; listening carefully to others that you interact with so that you understand their concerns well; and then using that understanding to find common ground for making solutions to problems.