As under secretary of commerce for intellectual property and director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), David Kappos advises the president, the secretary of Commerce and the administration on intellectual property matters. The office he directs protects IP through patents and trademarks, provides incentives to encourage technological advancement, and helps businesses protect their investments, promote their goods and services, and safeguard against deception in the marketplace. Kappos 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.
Are there specific programs you use to foster employee innovation?
There are. One of the areas that we were hammered on earlier this year was innovation. The problem we encounter is this: Fundamentally, our job is not to be innovative at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The last thing people want is a patent examiner who’s taking creative liberty in how he reviews a patent application. As an agency of 8,000 or so professionals, it’s part of our job and our legal responsibility to follow a very detailed set of rules.
In that context, we’ve had to think long and hard about how to encourage our employees to be innovative in appropriate ways. We’ve created a program to review recommendations from the employees about how to make activities at the agency more streamlined and more effective. It’s garnered such an outstanding slate of suggestions that we decided to turn the program into an annual contest. Employees who provide the best suggestions are not only honored at an agency-wide awards ceremony each year, they are given the resources and funding to implement their suggestions.
What are some of the leadership lessons you’ve learned over the years?
Leadership involves a lot of different behaviors and characteristics, but high on my list is adaptability. In virtually every situation, that means getting the facts and having an comprehensive understanding of what is going on. It entails tuning a response to all aspects of the situation, whether it involves inter-cultural issues, broad-based communications or a fine-grained decision on a particular issue or person, and whether it requires a coaching kind of response, a directive kind of response or no response at all.
Having a whole range of tools to use is really critical, taking a leader from being handicapped and having only one or two tools to respond to a situation with, to becoming like a Swiss Army Knife and having just the right balance, tone, style, delivery, content, timing and everything available to handle whatever the situation is.
Before this job, I was employed by IBM for 27 years and had the benefit of working with some of the greatest leaders of our time. I think it’s fair to say that whatever I know about leadership and management, I learned at IBM. The company made a tremendous investment in me, ensuring that I received both formal and informal opportunities for leadership development.
What are you doing to keep the satisfaction of your employees high?
One thing we’re doing is partnering with our labor unions. We are empowering the unions and treating them not only as valued colleagues, but also as aggregators of employee interests and employee concerns. As a result, we’ve transformed our ability to respond to employees’ wants and needs.
A second thing we’re doing is involving our first-level managers, who are supervisory examiners, in management decisions. It’s allowed us to improve morale dramatically, because when you get the first-line managers feeling good and informed, the magnifying impact is enormous. About 98 percent of how employees view their workplaces depends on how they view their first-line managers.
A third and final thing we’re doing is engaging our SES (Senior Executive Service) career executives and using them as a core team of senior professionals for the agency. If I may say so, the idea has worked brilliantly. It’s given me direct, regular access to the 60 or so SES members here at USPTO.
What event or experience has most contributed to shaping you as the leader you are today?
The most transformative experience for me was an overseas assignment I completed in Japan. At the time, I ran IBM’s Asia Pacific Intellectual Property Law operation. I was thrown into a leadership role, in a different country with a different culture, and with really no support. I was 12 time zones away from anyone who could really be helpful to me and, as a result, I learned quickly how to adapt. It brought my sense of leadership to an entirely new level. Today, I am able to consider things like cultural issues in trying to lead people with broad experience of background.
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