What did you learn about leadership serving in the military?
Ninety percent of what I learned about leadership I learned at West Point and in the first few years with the military. At West Point, from the moment you get there, the focus is on leadership—they call it a ‘leadership laboratory,’ offering countless opportunities to practice leadership throughout the four-year experience. The other key experience for me was Army Ranger School, which teaches you how to motivate, communicate and lead under very arduous conditions with little sleep and food. That, of course, is quite a challenge in terms of motivating folks. And finally, being a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, I got to take all the theory learned in Ranger School and West Point and put it into practice.
The key thing I learned from those three experiences was the importance of defining what the military calls the ‘end state’ or ‘vision’ and translating that into readily understandable objectives. As a platoon leader, I rapidly learned that most of the experience resided within the combat-tested, non-commissioned officers within my platoon, and that I needed to create an environment where we could harness their experience and creativity, put together a plan and execute it well. The thing that surprised me the most was when you included [the troops] in that effort and encouraged them to take ownership of it, then they're not just going to allow it to fail.
How do you keep employees focused on achieving ICE’s mission?
I believe in the power of a story to be a catalyst and to motivate folks. There's no better story to tell than our own family stories as an agency; so we lift up, promote and celebrate successes that are aligned to the direction we want the agency to march. Folks on the front line often see what's in their individual lane, but they can lose sight of how their individual efforts roll up to the collective success of the agency. I love to tell stories about how a single investigator or officer coordinated an effort that ultimately became a national or global initiative that we briefed at the White House. I love showing how they're being stewards of their position and are passionate about what they’re doing.
Beyond celebrating their achievements, they also need to know you understand their challenges and that you're working to resolve them. My standard question to folks is: If you're sitting in my chair, what are three things that you think we should be doing? What are three things we should stop doing? That generates an interesting dialogue because from their various perspectives, they're focused on different things, and it's important to hear and act on them.
How can a federal leader best foster success?
Performance management is a critical component. Something I continue to struggle with during my twenty-some years as a leader is, how do you measure success? How do you define it and how do you, in a meaningful way, achieve outcome-based and efficiency-based performance measurement?
But success in my business ultimately relies on people, partnerships and performance. It’s about looking in every location at how we are effectively recruiting, training and retaining our employees; what kinds of unique partnerships we are forming in those areas as force multipliers to enable our missions; and then finally, when you get the performance management piece right, you can really unleash the energy and creativity of an agency because you tell them what the boundaries and goals are. With the right performance metrics in place, you really free up that person to lead within those boundaries that you’ve established for them. Everybody is happy, because no one wants to be micro-managed. Every employee wants to be creative; it's just a question of making sure that it’s all moving in the larger direction of the agency.
What are your biggest day-to-day management challenges and how are you overcoming them?
It is getting everyone rowing in the same direction. There are three major operational components within ICE and three principal field officers in most areas of responsibility—the key is how you integrate all these levels since they have their own separate reporting chains. I employ multiple layers of communication, such as one-on-one conversations with each of our 80 ‘commanders’ in the field at least two times a year. I want to talk to them directly to model the importance of communication, but I also want to get their perspectives about the challenges they're dealing with.
In addition, we operate in a very politically charged environment; and with immigration, I’m concerned about maintaining a mission focus by the career folks. My role is to foster professionalism and competence in the career ranks. I want to maintain an environment where people may question immigration policy, but they don't question the folks that are implementing that policy. There's an understanding that there is professionalism, competence and a commitment to executing the laws and the policies that are handed to us.
What is your favorite leadership book?
The one leadership book I keep coming back to is The Leadership Challenge . It talks about five practices of exemplary leadership and one is “Encourage the Heart,” which means it's all about feedback and rewarding employees. I've found that I wasn’t focused on making that a disciplined part of my schedule each week like I do now. Each week, both the director and I, he'll call two folks and I'll call two folks on some specific accomplishments that they have done. Of course, that reverberates throughout the entire workforce when a GS-9 is getting a call from the deputy director commending them on doing a good job.
A number of years ago when I first discovered The Leadership Challenge, I was looking for a 360-degree assessment tool, because I had a problematic manager that didn't see some of his shortcomings. Ironically, I was focused on this one marginal leader that I wanted to try to confront, have somewhat of an intervention and help him grow; but as every leader knows, there are so many areas that we all can do better in.