How did being a NIST employee shape your leadership as director?
It gave me a great advantage. I had worked here for 16 years at different levels from a scientist to a manager. I have a feel for the organization, knew a lot of the people and had a sense of what kinds of things were important. I'm still learning, because NIST is so diverse. Employees know me and my perspective so they've entrusted me with leading ambitious changes. I don't think a lot of things we’ve done over the past two years would have been possible without that support from the whole agency.
How is leading a scientific-driven federal agency different from leading a traditional one?
I don't have direct experience working in agencies that are not science based, but looking over the fence I imagine some significant differences. We're a research organization and couldn't do our public-service function without scientific research. You don't lead scientists in the conduct of their research. You have to know when to get out of the way. The two things that motivate scientists are interesting work and important work. They want to make a difference. As a leader, you're trying to create alignment between their scientific work and the agency’s needs.
How do you motivate your employees?
I don’t take a lot of credit for it because they're incredibly self-motivated. Being a government scientist has two ingredients. You want the challenge and satisfaction of trying to solve an interesting scientific or engineering research question. That’s just a lot of fun. The other ingredient is making sure your work makes a difference. It sounds corny, but every scientist wants to save the world in some way. We have a great mission to advance measurement science so the country can outcompete and out-innovate and thrive economically. That’s just really cool. The key part of motivating is letting that alignment happen so you can do great science on behalf of the country. When you do, everyone's excited, from the newest person fresh out of school to somebody who retired 10 years ago and still comes in.
How do you stay focused on the NIST mission?
It's a perpetual challenge. There will be changes in rules or budgets. You solve three problems and you turn around and four new ones have cropped up. That's a big part of what management deals with on a day-to-day basis. We go to a lot of trouble to make this one of the most exciting places in the world to work for top scientists. The last thing we want to do is toxify that experience by having them do a bunch of other things that they don't see as contributing to that role.
What are the most important elements of success?
Leadership is an interesting marriage between personal accountability and organizational success. My success is measured by how I contribute to the agency doing well. You also need important goals. You’re measured by how effective you are in getting your organization to help you work toward those goals. The nuts-and-bolts things managers talk about come into play, but that's the tool box. The real issue is knowing where you're trying to go.
How do you set goals and make sure your employees have the same ones?
It’s not easy. For example, we have a lot of internal information from scientists at the cutting edge of these fields. They are enormous resources for anticipating directions even before industries know. You can't do everything, so how do you decide how to focus? There are things happening day to day and there are things that won't come to fruition for 10 years. We're trying to improve our planning processes and reorganize NIST to make sure our senior leadership is focused on carrying out the mission. The organizational leadership has to pull together to accomplish public benefits, a continuous and important process.
How can federal leaders inspire the next generation to public service?
A scientific organization is almost by definition an elitist organization. You’re not looking for just a competent scientist or engineer. You want the world's best. That you're in a competitive hiring environment is baked into the entire objective. A federal agency has unique challenges that other science and technology organizations don’t. It involves open access to collaborate internationally. We have to be able to work in that global scientific community and allow scientists to follow the scientific process. You want to allow them to fully participate in professional meetings, dialogues and seminars.
Who has been a role model for you?
I confess I'm the world's worst plagiarist. I copy everybody around me. When I see somebody really effective, I'm always changing and modifying my approach. One person in particular is Mike Rowe, my former boss and mentor for 14 years at NIST. He taught me the importance of having a clear goal of what you are trying to accomplish and he had a remarkable ability to work with people.
More from On Leadership: