Marie C. Johns is deputy administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), where she is second in command and responsible for the agency’s 3,000 employees, 68 district offices and policy development affecting small businesses. Prior to joining the agency, she was the managing member of L&L Consulting and served as president of Verizon Washington, where she was responsible for managing nearly 2,000 employees. Johns 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.
What leadership lessons did you learn from your private-sector experience?
The first thing is showing up. Part of providing leadership is “walking the talk” and being available. Whenever I’m in my office, I make it a point of seeing as many colleagues as I can during the day, being visible with the team and listening. It’s interesting how much you can pick up walking through the hallways and talking to employees about what’s going on and what issues they're tackling. It’s also important to bring colleagues together around the table, focusing on the big challenges that we have and making sure that everyone knows they need to make a contribution. I count on them to contribute to moving the agency forward and expect that they bring the right skills to the table.
How do you motivate SBA employees?
I have quarterly town halls with all of our employees. These meetings are a good, interactive mechanism for keeping people engaged because employees hear from senior officials at the agency and can ask questions directly. Whenever I’m on the road, I meet with our district staff and have a roundtable discussion. Hearing firsthand from employees about the concerns, successes and challenges in their districts is very informative. It’s important for me to get outside of headquarters and meet as many team members as possible. We also have a focus on training. It’s an opportunity to reinforce that the administrator and I are very committed to providing the resources to develop the most skilled workforce possible.
What advice do you have for employees seeking to move up in the ranks?
First of all, know your stuff. Know your job, know what you're supposed to do and be the best at it. Second, keep learning. Don’t focus solely on the federal sector, but also on the private sector and internationally. Scan the horizon for information that can help you to be a continuous learner. Third, be known as a phenomenal team player and collaborator, not only within one’s agency, but across the federal sector. The public is best served when we work as one federal government, seamless and aligned.
What are the innovative programs taking place at the SBA?
Many innovative programs are under the banner of our underserved initiative. We’re doing more to support small business owners who are in communities of color, in rural areas, young entrepreneurs, veterans and women-owned small businesses. These initiatives focus on what we call our three Cs: access to capital, access to federal government contracting, and access to counseling and technical assistance. We also launched a series of Urban Economic Forums that connect small business owners to local resources to grow their businesses and to each other through networking.
How are budget constraints affecting SBA services?
This is a challenging time. We are always looking for ways to tighten our belt. This is why collaboration and partnerships are important. When we are working with our partners and connecting more effectively, we can expand services to small businesses which are critical to economic recovery. We are also relying more on technology by using webinars for training and connecting to small businesses online. Our website is content rich and interactive. We have many entrepreneurial development training courses online so that small business owners can have access to that curriculum 24/7.
What shaped your management perspective?
One experience stands out as a hallmark, and it was a negative experience. Early on, I worked for a very bad manager. He was distant and not available for questions. I was struggling with a project and needed guidance, but he basically said, “You’re on your own.” I was frustrated, but decided that I'm not going to let this bad manager prevent my success. I found people who were supportive and gave me the guidance I needed. A couple things happened because of that bad experience. I was a lot smarter and more resourceful than I realized, so I gained greater confidence. It also proved the value of having a network and collaborating with others. I pledged to myself that I would never be like this person was. I take my role as a mentor and role model very seriously, and that desire largely comes from having a really lousy supervisor early in my career.
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