Inside President Obama’s West Wing

Pete Souza/THE WHITE HOUSE - President Barack Obama talks alone with Chris Lu, an assistant to the President and cabinet secretary, in the Blue Room of the White House, Oct. 14, 2009.

Chris Lu is assistant to the president and White House Cabinet Secretary. Prior to serving in the White House, he worked for then-Senator Obama as legislative director and acting chief of staff, and consequently served as executive director of the presidential transition. He previously worked as deputy chief counsel for a House committee and as a litigation attorney at a D.C. law firm. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.

How do you motivate and engage your staff?

(Staff/THE WHITE HOUSE) - Chris Lu is the White House Cabinet Secretary.

I believe in sharing as much information as possible with my staff. I don’t think they can do their jobs effectively if they don’t know the larger picture. Every morning, I hold a meeting with my entire staff and our interns so they know what I’m working on and what their colleagues are working on. That way, they will clearly know the game plan for the day and the week.

I also strongly believe you can never say “thank you” enough. There’s a tendency in politics to think that folks are jaded and that thanking them isn’t necessary. Even in a competitive, highly charged environment like the White House, just showing people that you appreciate their work goes a long way. And of course, keeping your staff well fed is never a bad thing. I try to bring doughnuts to the office every now and then.

What leadership lessons did you learn as Barack Obama’s legislative director and acting chief in the Senate, and now as the White House Cabinet Secretary?

I learned in the Senate that I couldn’t be an expert on everything, so the key is to hire good people, set clear expectations and goals, and then trust them to do their jobs. I’m available for my staff as they have questions, but I don’t micromanage what they do.

The second point is to always make sure I have their backs. When former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel offered me my job right after election day, he told me, “I might chew you out in private, but I’ll always have your back in public.” That meant a lot to me. And that’s something the president believes in, as does our current Chief of Staff Bill Daley. I try to follow the same principle with my staff.

What skills and qualities do you look for in the people that you hire?

I need people who pay attention to details. If you don’t do the little things well, you’re probably not going to do the big things well. I look for people who can multi-task. Our office often serves as the traffic cop on issues that go back and forth between the White House and the agencies. I prefer people who can juggle multiple projects and prioritize, and more importantly, people who can sort out the issues that need to be elevated to me and others in the West Wing. I also look for people who are aggressive and entrepreneurial, and who are willing to think outside the box. The pace in the White House is fast, so we need people who can get things done.  

What advice do you give to new political appointees?

I tell new appointees that you can’t be successful as a political appointee unless you collaborate with career staff. Career federal personnel have institutional knowledge and wisdom. They are deeply committed to the missions of their agencies. They know how to get things done.

But I also tell political appointees to remember that they are appointees of President Obama and the Secretary of their agency. The job of an appointee is to advocate for the changes and reforms that further the administration’s broader goals. Change, quite frankly, isn’t always easy. On occasion, that means you’re going to encounter resistance from career staff. When that happens, you need to push the envelope. You can’t accept no for an answer. You can’t accept business as usual.

The last piece of advice I’d give to them is to be nice and respectful to everyone, regardless of someone else’s position in the organization. You never know who you’re going to need to help you out in a pinch. And in politics, you never know who’s going to be your boss one day.

Were there any critical events that helped you become a leader?

My upbringing shaped who I am as a person and how I approach my work. My parents both came to this country as immigrants. They didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t know much English. It’s amazing to think that in one generation, their son is now working in the West Wing. Given where my family started, I never take for granted where I am in my life professionally, and I never forget how lucky I am to be where I am.  

In terms of leadership, observing and working with the president for the last seven years has been the best training to be a leader. Watching the way he inspires all of us in the White House and the country as a whole, it makes you realize that no matter how good a leader you think you are, there’s still a long way to go.

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