The Federal Coach

Jane Lubchenco, first female chief of NOAA, talks about agency's challenges

By Tom Fox
Monday, November 29, 2010; 6:04 PM

Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and environmental scientist, is the first female administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In this role, she manages nearly 13,000 employees who are working to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Previously, Lubchenco spent more than three decades teaching at Oregon State and Harvard universities.

How do you keep your employees motivated and engaged in the mission and work of NOAA?

The NOAA employees I've met, both in the D.C. area and our offices and labs around the country, are already committed and engaged. They're passionate about what they do, and they believe in our mission. Having what they do be validated and recognized is enormously important, but so too is engaging their creativity in tackling some tough problems and moving in new directions. I think that combination of recognition and validation of really excellent work, coupled with opportunities to step up to the plate and work with new teams and take on new challenges, is energizing.

We certainly had a rich set of challenges with the oil spill. Not only did we have to devote extraordinary efforts across NOAA to support the federal effort, but we had to keep all of our usual programs operational. I've been blown away by the extent to which people came together to tackle this disaster. One of NOAA's primary responsibilities in the Deep Water Horizon response was to provide scientific underpinnings for much of the decision making. Doing so ranged from providing local weather forecasts to tracking and forecasting where oil and key species were on and beneath the water, to figuring out how the Loop Current was behaving. We had satellites in space, planes in the air, ships and buoys on the water, gliders and instruments under the water, experts on the ground and information online. The different parts of NOAA came together to guide response decisions, protect habitats and wildlife, ensure seafood safety, assess the impact of the oil and assist with restoration. Science underpins all of our responsibilities, and I'm exceptionally proud of the role we played and are playing.

It was a true test of our mettle.

How can federal leaders best lead in a high science environment?

The independent nature of scientists is a great strength, because it allows us to explore different paths, be open to new ideas and challenge the status quo. That's not always easy, but it is exciting and enriching, and in the end leads to better outcomes. I believe that top-down, command-and-control leadership is inherently limited. An organization is stronger when everyone is empowered to do their best and to help find solutions.

NOAA is a science agency. We value our scientists. But achieving our outcomes requires both strong science and a diversity of approaches, skill sets and backgrounds. And so, we also value our technicians, support staff, managers, service providers and communicators - the full richness of what is needed to make an organization run.

What do you think are the obstacles to attracting scientists to public service? How can federal leaders help overcome these obstacles and inspire them to serve?

One of the biggest challenges is making sure that scientists are truly valued for the science that they do. Not just brought in as a scientist and then trained to be a manager. We need good scientists to be managers, but we need good scientists to also be rewarded and recognized for delivering world-class science. One of the best ways to recruit is to have an organization where a diversity of career paths is available for scientists. I think that is one key, another is having strong role models. If you see someone in an organization with whom you can identify, then you are likely to see greater opportunities for yourself.

What did you learn about leadership working in higher education and how have you used this knowledge at NOAA?

I believe good leaders love and believe passionately in what they're doing, and they inspire others to work together to solve problems. My love of science and my interest in sharing and using it to provide valuable services to the country is a good fit for my current job. So as the head of one of the nation's premier scientific agencies, I strive to inspire the NOAA team to tackle tough problems and constantly improve the services and stewardship that we provide. I've long championed the importance of sharing science in a way that's relevant to people's lives so they can understand and use scientific information. That's what NOAA is all about and I love it.

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