On a product-safety mission: An interview with CPSC leader Inez Moore Tenenbaum

May 1, 2012

Inez Moore Tenenbaum is the chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is responsible for protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death from thousands of consumer products. She previously served as South Carolina's state superintendent of education, and practiced health, environmental and public interest law. Tenenbaum 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 are your biggest day-to-day challenges?

We oversee thousands of products. Many of them come from out of the country — 98 percent of the toys and a great majority of electrical products imported into the country come from China. It’s very important that we continue to have port surveillance and a risk-management system that helps us identify potentially hazardous products. If we had more staff at the ports, we could intervene more frequently and stop even more unsafe products. We have worked hard to increase our presence at the ports, but we still have limited resources compared to the other agencies. We receive tens of thousands of incident reports. We conduct thousands of investigations and stop millions of unsafe products from reaching the store shelves each year. With the resources we have, we do a great amount, but I hope that we’re not caught in these across-the-board cuts. It would take the wind out of our sail and limit what we can do.

How do you engage your employees in the mission and the work of the CPSC?

It’s important to maintain positive morale. In order to do that, people have to realize we’re making progress, that they’re able to do their jobs, that the chairman is not pulling them off task and that they are allowed to be professionals. I meet weekly with the leadership team, and more times if needed. And I encourage them to be proactive to prevent product-related deaths and injuries. We went through a very difficult period as an agency 2007 to 2008. I wasn’t here, but it was hard for the people who were here. We were in a reactive posture regarding the dangers with cribs and toys with lead that came from China. My philosophy is to look for emerging hazards and be in the position to address them.

What else do you do to connect with your employees?

I hope that my employees think that I am accessible. I have an open-door policy. I also have what we call an all-hands meeting when I feel like there’s something going through the agency and people want to know what’s happening. So I bring them all together and we use our broadcasting capabilities to broadcast to the employees in the field. I do try to encourage and praise staff for jobs well done. We do recognize people at the agency at an Employee Appreciation Day.

What leadership lessons did you learn working in state government?

The first thing I learned is that everyone appreciates knowing the mission and the vision of the leader. It’s very important to have a strategic plan that involves everyone so that there’s buy-in among your leaders and among the employees. I came to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and created a new strategic plan and worked with leadership within the agency to do that. The second thing I’ve learned is that it’s so important to recruit strong leaders to the agency. One needs to nurture these leaders and let them have strong leadership responsibilities in the agency. 

What experiences prepared you for your job?

Having a law degree and practicing in the private sector as well as the public sector really has shown me an appreciation for the law and governance. It’s important that you understand not only how Congress works, but how the courts work. The ability to get into rule-making and statutory interpretation is invaluable for anyone who leads this agency. I think that my education and my work experience in state government laid the foundation for me to be effective at the CPSC.

Do you have any role models?

I always say my mother was my first role model. She was an elementary-school teacher and had an incredible work ethic. She was a very responsible person. I have a friend named Jean Toal who is now the chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. When she was a member of the state legislature, I admired how she prepared herself and the great work ethic she had.

Dick Riley was governor when I was working in the House of Representatives in South Carolina. I observed how he treated everyone with great respect. He was a phenomenal listener. If I’m in a tough situation, many times I’ve thought, “What would Dick Riley do?” He has a great sense of calm.

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