James H. Freis, Jr. was appointed in 2007 as director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), an agency that establishes and implements regulatory policies, and analyzes financial transactions, to help detect and deter money laundering, terrorist financing and other financial crimes. He previously served as deputy assistant general counsel for enforcement and intelligence at the Treasury Department, worked as senior counsel in the legal service of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland and at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This interview was conducted by Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog.
What are some of the leadership lessons you gained during your time in government?
I have learned the importance of building consensus and generating buy-in from different groups of stakeholders. When I came to Treasury, I started dealing with national security matters and law enforcement cases and instantly the stakes became much higher. Today, as the director of FinCEN, part of finding the right answer is working with people who have important pieces of information, opinions or experience that will help us come to the correct conclusions.
How do you keep your employees motivated?
The most consistent and gratifying aspect of working with the people here is how overwhelmingly motivated they are by FinCEN’s mission. Again and again, day after day, it’s what’s brought them here and what keeps them here. One of the most fundamental aspects of our mission is to “follow the money.” By following the money, we help catch the criminals. We have only a small component, so we are handing that information over to criminal investigative officers and they have to do the rest. But seeing that we gave the investigators and prosecutors the tools to put bad guys away shows us that we’ve achieved our mission. The other part is the preventative side. By looking at the vulnerabilities to criminal abuse in our financial systems, we use our regulatory authorities to work with the financial industry to help them mitigate the risks that criminals would otherwise exploit. To close that vulnerability, to mitigate that risk, is extremely gratifying.
What are the challenges you face on the workforce management front?
As a small agency, we have to determine our priorities. We have to continually reevaluate where we want to bring to bear our legal authorities, specialized talents and unique resources. In approaching that challenge, we engage with our law enforcement counterparts, regulators, financial institutions and others focused on their specialized areas of respective responsibility. FinCEN must then step back to see the broader picture of risk and criminal activity, and try to find the right balance among the sometimes differing interests among our stakeholders, to further the one common goal of protecting against criminal abuse. We’re continually trying to find ways to engage with others and depend heavily on their cooperation. We need to see what might be coming down the pike, and that affects how we focus and manage our challenges.
What do you do to encourage cooperation within your agency?
One of the most important things is to make sure people never lose sight of the common purpose. When I bring people together at our quarterly town hall meetings with either the entire agency or smaller groups, the questions that I personally try to throw out there are: Why are we here? What are we trying to achieve? I never let them forget that we are strongest when we work together.
What tricks or methods have you developed to manage your time more effectively?
I am very decisive. Once we have the information that we need, we make a decision and move swiftly toward implementation. One of the things I try to do when I’m flooded with new tasks or decisions, is to prioritize my time and my order of responses to the questions coming in. I put first those items to which other people are waiting on my response. If they need the decision to take path A or path B, and they might otherwise have downtime waiting for that response, I immediately put forward those items.
When you think about your path to leadership, what has helped you the most?
The life experience that I’ve found most influential is the international exposure that I’ve had. I’ve had the privilege of working abroad for almost eight years and dealing with people from around the world. It has brought a whole other dimension of additional experiences and alternative viewpoints.
If you could find one additional hour in your busy day, how is it you might spend your time?
I’d love an additional hour just to talk with people. We want to learn from the experiences of others, and we have to build relationships of trust. So, being out there and talking with counterparts is critical.