On Leadership: The Federal Coach

The Federal Coach: Karen G. Mills, administrator of Small Business Administration

Karen Mills says she draws inspiration from business owners she meets in her travels.
Karen Mills says she draws inspiration from business owners she meets in her travels. (Joshua Roberts)
Friday, November 5, 2010

As the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), Karen G. Mills leads more than 2,000 full-time employees who are helping small-business owners and entrepreneurs secure financing, technical assistance, training and federal contracts. Before this role, Mills was an active hands-on investor in and successful manager of small businesses, including small manufacturing firms.

Who are your leadership role models and what lessons do you take away from their example?

I grew up in a family business, and we would talk about business around the kitchen table. My grandfather came to this country as an immigrant without resources and built a business over a number of years, and he used to tell me that this was the most important thing in America and it was the most important thing for me to do. That spirit is the same one that I see in the business owners that I meet every day all over the country. It's one of the reasons that I travel so much, because I like nothing more than to walk into an entrepreneur's factory and see what they have built and created and find out what we can do to help them move forward.

What do you consider to be a critical event to your becoming the leader you are today?

We had a base closure in my town - Brunswick, Maine - and I was asked by the governor to find a way to mitigate the loss of jobs in our community. The governor knew that I was in the business of growing small businesses, and he realized that he needed innovative small businesses to replace the jobs Maine would lose when the air station closed, so he turned to me to help figure out the solution. This was my first substantial engagement in public-sector job creation. We were able to bring together the Maine Boat Builders and local technologies from the University of Maine to create a cluster around the more innovative boat building techniques, and now Maine has an industry where we're making some of the fastest, lightest boats in the world.

That experience bringing together [different groups] and creating an outcome where we knew we had strengthened the Maine economy gave me a real interest in serving more broadly. This opportunity led me to the SBA, where I am leading a team that is committed to growing small business and helping our economy create jobs.

What is the most important thing you want to accomplish at the SBA? How are you engaging your employees to reach this goal?

We're a small agency, but we have a big mission because half of the people who work in this country own or work for a small business. We're very excited because the president just signed the Small Business Jobs Act, which will put even more tools in the hands of small business. So, right now, one of our top goals is to make sure that we implement this as quickly and as effectively as possible.

The way we do that is to work together as an SBA team. In headquarters and in the field, we are breaking down silos within the SBA and between the SBA and others. One of my favorite things is to find other ways that every employee can work together - whether it's an IT worker at headquarters or a field staffer in Montana. My job is to make sure that they see we're all on the same team working for the same goals.

How do you surface ideas and problems from your employees?

Some of the best ideas and the most pressing problems come to light when I'm on the road. There's nothing more eye-opening than sitting around the table and hearing from our field staff, SBA Small Business Counselors, lenders and small-business owners. I have a roundtable in every city I go to, and it gives me a real sense for what's happening. For example, I heard that some of our programs are too complicated, so we created a task force focusing on streamlining and simplification.

What private-sector practices are you bringing to your role as SBA administrator?

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