Public service has been a theme in my family for a long time. My grandfather was in civil service in Hawaii and my parents are both educators. I got a little side-tracked and worked as an IT administrator in Santa Barbara, California. September 11 caused me to reevaluate my priorities. I was fortunate to receive a Presidential Management Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Human Capital, and I’ve been in public service ever since.
What are the challenges to recruiting talented young people to government?
The opportunity is there to engage the younger generation in terms of their ability to have an impact on society and make a difference in the world. The lack of opportunities at the state and local government levels has really cut down on some of the avenues for young people. On top of that, the federal government hiring process is difficult to navigate. If we simplified the hiring process, that would be helpful. There also are things that we can do to tell a more compelling story about the work we are doing. That’s definitely happening across government, but it’s not necessarily happening consistently. I think the government is pretty well positioned to deliver an experience that meets the preferences of younger people.
What can federal leaders do to engage young employees?
I don’t think engaging young federal employees is distinct from engaging other federal employees. The methodology should almost be the same. Managers ought to observe the work styles of young people and see how they can leverage their talent. If you’re trying to get the most out of your employees, you want them to be in a place where they’re using their skills with the most impact. You should set clear and well-defined priorities, and there should be clearly communicated expectations with performance feedback. I think all employees want those things.
What advice has helped you to become a better leader?
My former boss at NIH, Christine Major, said it’s all about the relationship. We're in the public sector to do great, big things; and it seems to me that great, big things can’t be done without lots of people pulling in the same direction. The time you invest in relationships on the front end always pays itself back. My current deputy director, Raj Date, says that time is your only wasted asset. Following his lead, I try to do work that’s hard, that matters.
What advice would you give to emerging federal leaders?
You have to be the steward of your career. It’s no one else’s job to do that. There’s a certain amount of personal ownership that has to be asserted. You should have a framework for your priorities, because there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity in the public sector. It’s important that people continue to learn from their experiences. Finally, I think adaptability is the number one skill that is needed to be successful in government. Rather than obsessing about setbacks that are beyond your control, you need to learn how to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on in order to salvage whatever you were working on.
What is you general view about leadership?
I feel like leadership is kind of a process. One of the best ways to learn is by observing other leaders. Leading is like running. Everyone thinks they can do it, but there’s actually a tremendous amount of technique involved. A lot of people undersell the nuances of leading and say, “Just go lead.” Don’t just assume you can do it; observe, study and improve.
More from On Leadership:
How to cut through red tape in government
PHOTOS | Federal leadership rankings
Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter:
@post_lead | @thefedcoach | @lily_cunningham