The woman who produces the federal budget (and your passport)


Acting public printer Davita Vance-Cooks and assistant public printer Jim Bradley greet bookbinder Leon Thornton during production of the bound version of the federal budget being released Monday. (Courtesy of the Government Printing Office/COURTESY OF THE GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE)
February 15, 2012

Davita Vance-Cooks became the acting public printer in January and now serves as the chief executive officer of the U.S. Government Printing Office, which produces passports, the federal budget, the Congressional Record, the Federal Register and numerous other congressional and agency publications. A business executive with more than two decades of private-sector experience, Vance-Cooks joined the GPO in 2004 and is the first woman to hold its top position. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.

What leadership lessons have been helpful to you in your role as public printer?

Management for the public and private sector has the same primary goal: to make sure the organization’s mission is carried out. My training in the private sector has led me to focus on three key areas. First, I’m customer focused. In the private sector, you’re always worried about rivaling your competition and maximizing your profit. Customers can stay with you or walk away. In the public sector, you also have customers. I’ve made sure that is reflected in our strategic plans and that we remain customer-focused.

Second is to keep my attention on the bottom line. I ask tough questions about the return on investment and the opportunity costs, and I stress the importance of balancing tight resources to accomplish our mission. Third is the need to listen to employees. The employees know their job very well.They have the details and know what should be done and how. I recently implemented an anonymous comment box that goes directly to me called “What’s On Your Mind?” I am pleased with the feedback from our employees. They are extremely knowledgeable about what’s going on in this organization and they have excellent ideas.

How have you kept your employees motivated and engaged in GPO’s mission?

We have a clearly articulated plan and communicate it everywhere, continually putting it in front of employees. We posted it on the Web site. We took sound bytes of that strategic plan and put it on our link system, where screens throughout the building continually promote things that are happening. We put it in “Headlines,” our weekly newspaper. At the end of fiscal year 2011, we developed an accomplishment document. We wrote all the activities we had completed in support of that strategic plan. We wanted employees to know what we had accomplished and how proud we are of their work. I can refer to the previous year’s accomplishments to tell employees we appreciate what they do and explain how they have helped further our strategic plan.

Also, training is the great motivator. When an organization is going through massive, transformative change, as we are, training is important. We look at needed skill sets, leadership and best practices. This year, we have asked every employee to develop an individual development plan on these three areas. Last year, we implemented LEAD — it stands for leadership, evaluation and development. It’s open to all of the GPO employees interested in getting into leadership roles, but who may not be at the grade level. A series of ten modules focuses on building leadership skills. We are trying to demonstrate that we are committed to training leaders of tomorrow and to retraining our staff with the skill sets necessary to perform their jobs better.

What are the biggest day-to-day challenges?

My biggest challenge is figuring out how to balance the tight resources for accomplishing our mission. We had a buyout recently and lost about 15 percent of our staff across the board. That presents its own set of challenges. We want to make sure that we satisfy our customers. Before we offered the buyout, we made a workforce plan, looking at the entire organization and asking, “What if we lost 15 percent of our staff?” Every day now we continue to balance our resources to accomplish the mission. We are transforming ourselves to be a digital-information platform and provider of secure credentials. It’s important to make sure our employees have opportunities to train in those skill sets. I’m in constant communication and collaboration with our business leaders and our labor union leaders.

What experience was essential to making you the leader you are today?

In the private sector, in the early part of my career,I worked on the strategic side of the house, in market research and product development. I then asked for an opportunity to move to operations. Everyday, I find myself using those strategic and operational skill sets, and I firmly believe it’s made me a better leader. It is a good foundation to be able to understand what’s going on in your operation, analyze information, make quick decisions and synthesize the data.

Are there individuals you’ve looked to as role models?

I’ve had good managers who could sit and listen to what someone had to say. They would process information and make important decisions based on information they had gathered. They made mountains move. I’ve tried hard to pattern my leadership style after them. They had the ability to make anybody, regardless of grade level or rank, understand that what they said was important. They gave their full attention. A lot of times, in meetings now, we’re supposed to be listening but we’re on our Blackberrys or writing a note. These powerful people found the time to listen quietly. You never know who has the good idea. You never want to stop the flow of information coming to you.

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