Fed Coach: Wayne Clough, secretary of Smithsonian, has complex duties, globe-spanning workforce

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The Smithsonian
Monday, October 11, 2010; 7:40 PM

As the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, part of the federal government, Wayne Clough leads the world's largest museum and research complex with 19 museums, nine research centers, the National Zoo and research activities in more than 90 countries. Clough previously served for 14 years as president of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Ranked fourth out of 31 large federal agencies, the Smithsonian participated for the first time this year in the rankings for best places to work in the federal government.

How are you engaging young leaders at the Smithsonian?

As I talk to young people, they want to do something larger than just make a living; they want to make a life. So you want to help them do that. The Smithsonian may not be the right place for some people to start, but we want them to think of us, sometime, and think about coming here. You're not going to make as much money as you would in other places, but you make tremendous contributions and use your creativity in doing so. And you can have some fun. We want the Smithsonian to be the type of place where the word fun shows up. We are a place where people can find that outlet for public service. Public service appeals to people at different stages of their life. We want them when they think it's the right time, whether they are young or just young at heart.

How do you maintain contact with your entire workforce spread out over 90 countries?

First, I try to emphasize people. We are geographically diverse, and we are diverse in subject area. It's not necessarily a natural thing for an astrophysicist to talk to an artist. So thinking of ways to get people to talk together is a very interesting, intellectual challenge that I delight in. When those people talk with one another, amazing things can happen. It's just good-old-fashioned communications.

How do you express your gratitude to your employees?

I say thank you. I use e-mail as a means of letting people know we're really proud of them. During the snowstorm, the Smithsonian managed to keep one of its museums open every day of the week while the government was closed down. I was so proud of the people who did that.

I also let people know that I appreciate the ordinary. I need to see employees where they work, so I try to visit the museums that are not on the Mall on a regular basis. I love to go to the collections and meet these people who have this passion about their work because it inspires me.

Why did the Smithsonian decide to participate in this year's BPTW rankings?

I've always used surveys to help us improve as an institution. We need to know how people think. We need to know the good and the bad news. I think an institution like the Smithsonian thrives if it really helps people use their creativity to the maximum degree. In addition, I learned a lot about our individual leadership at the Smithsonian. We're trying to get the right leadership team in place and when we get them there, we want to be successful. We can learn from surveys if our leaders are being successful or not and why.

What is your favorite artifact in the Smithsonian?

I always like a surprise, so I have a sports case that I show people. I have stuff like the "Wonder Boy" bat from the movie "The Natural," a hockey shoe from the miracle hockey team, and Lance Armstrong's yellow jersey that he wore when he won after coming back from cancer.

I also have a ball that's at the bottom of the case that just looks ugly. It's about three inches across, and I ask people what they think it is and nobody comes close. The ball was made by a gentleman named Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was a lawyer, he played baseball with his buddies in between court cases in Springfield, and that's his handball.

Visit On Leadership at views.washingtonpost.com/leadership/fedcoach. View more On Leadership interviews, and join the discussion at www.washingtonpost.com/leadership. Mondays: "Getting Ahead" - advice on "leading up." Wednesdays: "View From the Top Floor" - interviews with federal leaders. Fridays: Answering questions about navigating the federal workforce terrain.


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