Leading HHS: Staying focused on the goal requires teamwork, innovation and inspiration
By Tom Fox,
As deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Bill Corr is responsible for the operations of the government’s largest civilian department. He most recently served as executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and previously served for 12 years as counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. Corr spoke with Tom Fox, who is a guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.
What motivated you to go into health care as a career?
During my last year of law school, between taking health law courses at Vanderbilt and doing part-time work in the Tennessee Department of Public Health, I developed a strong interest in health care policy. Upon graduating, I decided that getting first hand experience in the health care system would be the best way to learn about it, and so I became the executive director of four nonprofit, community-owned primary health care centers in the Appalachian mountain area of east Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky.
On a daily basis I experienced the impact that poor public health practices have on people’s lives, such as an unhealthy diet and the absence of health insurance and a fully functioning health care system. I worked with the board members for these health centers who were, in most cases, retired coal miners who had wisdom, a great deal of common sense and a real commitment to their communities. Those four years shaped my commitment to public service and a lifelong interest in health issues.
What leadership lessons did you learn from working on the Hill?
One of the most important lessons was that you really have to stay focused on your goal, because legislative success often takes months or years. Staying focused and disciplined means clearly articulating the problem you want addressed. You have to build support to advance your legislative solution. At HHS, where we’re responsible for implementing laws, policies and programs, you need the same patience, discipline and strategic mindset as found on the Hill.
What management techniques do you use to engage employees in the mission of HHS?
In a department of our size, with 10 major operating agencies, management is a great challenge. Most major health and human service problems require two or more of our agencies to work closely together. Working across and between departments adds another layer of complexity to the management challenge. We approach this by clearly identifying our priorities, the strategies we’re going to pursue and who is responsible for leading and evaluating those efforts. We’re always measuring and evaluating our outcomes. I meet regularly with our teams to go over our progress and, most importantly, to let them know how much their work is appreciated and valued. Fortunately, our people share a deep commitment to our mission. They’re highly motivated and work well together.
How are programs such as HHSinnovates driving innovation?
As leaders we have to demonstrate to our workforce that innovation is valued and that we understand new ideas require taking risk. With HHSinnovates we annually recognize specific employee driven projects and have their colleagues vote on the best innovative ideas. We actually asked the public to vote on their favorite innovation during the last round.
Through our Innovation Fellows program, we’ve matched HHS employees with like minded private sector experts and entrepreneurs on four high priority projects. Our hope is to get the best of both worlds: private sector experts share their skills and knowledge while learning about government and how it operates, and our internal experts benefit from working with leading technology and innovation experts. They’ve taken on some fascinating projects, such as finding innovative solutions for individuals who need to use durable medical equipment through prolonged power outages, like during Superstorm Sandy. We were overwhelmed with the interest from outside experts and see it as a valuable learning experience for our colleagues.
What has been the biggest surprise during your tenure as deputy secretary?
The most pleasant surprise has been the stamina of our colleagues. During my tenure, we’ve implemented elements of the Affordable Care Act, have been involved in the Recovery Act and have contended with the H1N1 pandemic and Gulf oil spill. All of these responsibilities were on top of the enormous workload our employees already have each day. They’ve had few breaks, yet they have continued to produce outstanding work.
Who are some of your leadership role models?
I’ve had the extraordinary fortune to work with outstanding leaders in every phase of my career. Each of these leaders have believed in government’s ability to serve the American people and that public service is an honorable and rewarding professional career. Having grown up in the 1950s and 1960s in the segregated south, I have to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis [of Georgia] are two of the most important leaders in my lifetime. Their stand for justice and peace serve as powerful examples for all of us. I try to remember their words and lessons every day.