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With Ken Salazar, peering into the Department of the Interior

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Ken Salazar is the 50th secretary of the Department of the Interior. Previously, he served as a U.S. senator from Colorado, Colorado’s state attorney general and the executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Salazar has also been a farmer and a small businessman. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, author of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.

What life experiences have helped shape your views on leadership?

Growing up in a very rural and remote area in Colorado’s San Luis Valley – one of the poorest counties in the United States – essentially created the framework of values from which I operate. I stand up for the little guy. I fight discrimination at all levels. I fight for an inclusive America. I recognize that my own American dream was one which eluded my parents, but they gave it to me because of education. I don’t believe that the American dream should be reserved for those who are born into the elite or somehow have been given an advantage over others. My growing-up experience is probably the most important thing that guides my priorities and my work today.

How do you approach your job as the head of a large federal department?

The ability for us to get our job done here at Interior depends on the people that we work with. I can’t do my job as secretary if I don’t have the full engagement of the more than 70,000 employees of the department. One of the things I try to do as I travel around the country is to regularly meet with our career employees so they can hear from me what’s going on. It’s also important for me to hear from them. The second thing that’s important is hearing the advice and the counsel of my team. None of the decisions we make are so clear cut one way or another that you can be absolutist. I’m the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers.

How do you keep your career federal employees motivated and engaged?

It has been a very uncertain time for federal employees, and so I acknowledge the pain that brings to people. For some in Washington, it’s become sport to pick on the federal workforce. I think they do so unjustly. The very foundation of a stable America is having a government that functions well. Many countries have dysfunctional governments, because they don’t have a good government workforce. I reject the notion that federal employees are the problem or that government is the problem. It’s important for me to remind our employees of that. It’s also important for them to know that I also remind Congress about that whenever I get an opportunity to do so.

How do you prioritize your challenges and your time?

From day one, I’ve had three very clear goals. They guide how I spend my time and they guide where I prioritize the work that I do. They are energy, conservation and Native Americans. On the energy front, we’ve created a virtual revolution on renewable energy on public lands where nothing existed before. On the conservation side, we are moving forward in a very difficult environment because of funding issues to continue a conservation and preservation agenda that will be a very robust one. And on the Native American front, we have turned a new page in the 400-year history of the interface between the American settlers of this country and the nation’s first Americans. That’s included a new relationship where the sovereignty of tribes is in fact recognized.

Have you had any role models or mentors?

My father and my mother are the most important mentors for me, because they were the ones who gave me the values that I have. My mother is 89. She’s still on the ranch. I talk to her every night. Sometimes I’ll spend ten minutes with her and sometimes it’ll be a two-minute conversation. She’s still very bright and very alert and knows what’s going on in the world.

Outside of my family, there have been many people who have influenced what I do and how I see the world. Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer taught me a lot about politics, policy and public service. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is probably my best friend in Washington, D.C. I see him as a fighter, a boxer. He is tougher than nails.

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