I thought I wanted to be a sports writer and then a psychologist. At school, I got involved in local political issues and ended up working on a political campaign. I found I really wanted to make a positive difference in people’s lives, so I went to graduate school in public administration. When I graduated, I got really lucky. Congress had just passed a bill that gave new authority to Bonneville Power Administration, and they were hiring people as fast as they could.
What makes me so lucky is that at Bonneville we are stewards of incredibly valuable assets to be operated based on sound business principles, yet on behalf of the public and with a public service mission. That combination of public-sector goals with a profit-and-loss statement is incredibly intellectually stimulating. I found a place where I love the work I do.
What leadership lessons have you learned during more than a decade at the helm of your agency?
If you’re in a job as an “acting” [administrator], don’t act like it. Anytime you have decision-making authority and you are hesitant, you will lead your agency astray. Always plan, lead and learn with a long-term perspective. Ask yourself, “What is the long-term legacy I want to leave from my time at this job?” Focus on the decisions that you can control, with a laser focus on serving the public interest.
I ask myself, “Could I explain this to my friends, my neighbors and relatives and have them believe I am trying to do the best thing for them?” When you can stand up publicly and express why you made the decision, how it focused on serving the public interest, not only does it work externally, but it resonates with your employees.
What are some key lessons that young federal employees need to learn to become effective leaders?
Embrace public involvement. Due to the public’s increased education levels and access to information, we have to be more willing to engage the public — recognizing they may have information not available to us that might change our decision. Secondly, bipartisanship is not dead. Executive branch employees in particular have the opportunity to promote bipartisanship by developing thoughtful solutions to problems that bridge partisan divides. Third, if you’re using delegated authority, think from the broad perspective of the delegator as to the implications for the whole organization, not your silo. Finally, politics is not a dirty word. We treat it that way in our culture. Instead, we need to talk with politicians because they have their finger on the pulse of how the public interest may be shifting. We can learn from elected officials in order to be great public servants.