Ray LaHood, U.S. transportation secretary, listens during an interview in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, May 11, 2011. (Christopher Powers/BLOOMBERG)

Ray LaHood is the 16th secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which is ranked ninth out of 19 large agencies in the just-released 2012 “ Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ” rankings. DOT was also the most improved large agency, raising its score 4.1 points from 2011. LaHood spoke with Tom Fox, who is a guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, which also publishes the rankings. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

When you became secretary in 2009, DOT was ranked last among large agencies in levels of employee satisfaction and commitment. What was your reaction and how did you feel when the agency received recognition for improving so dramatically in 2012?

When I [found out] that DOT was last, I was stunned. I made a commitment that day to do everything I could do to engage people and really change morale and opinions at the department. Four years later, we’ve accomplished a lot. We still have a lot more to do, obviously. But I am really proud of it. It’s not a one-man show by any means. It’s a result of an all-out team effort from a group of people that made a commitment to improve the way people think about the workplace at DOT. This was very focused and comprehensive.

What were some initiatives DOT undertook to turn around employee engagement?

You may not know this, but the majority of our employees are FAA employees. There was no secret around here about how disenchanted National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) workers were for not having a contract for five years. One of our first goals was to reach a contract, which we did within 100 days of my being sworn in. Reaching that goal, and satisfying that number of employees, set us on a course that people understood, that showed that we care about our employees. It felt like it was a very good giant first step.

Two things I think directly impact our employees — we didn’t have a health-care center at headquarters, and we have over 5,000 employees. One of our goals was pretty simple: Establish a health clinic, which we’ve done. One of our other goals was to establish a child-care facility. We’ve fallen short on that, but it’s still one of our goals. People know we’re addressing those. Also, at least once a month we’ve had a town hall meeting live-streamed to our workers around the country. We’ve used the meetings as a way to solicit ideas from employees about improvements in the workplace. They can stand up at a microphone and ask me anything they want to ask me about. I think people have appreciated the fact that they have access to the secretary.

We also have an awards ceremony once a year to honor employees for what they do — just common, ordinary employees who come to work every day and do their job, but they make a difference. We recognize them, and people appreciate that..

How do you make sure workers are comfortable sharing their opinions?

The idea that you engage employees and not only listen but follow through is central to the idea of building a relationship. I’ve met with all the employees in every department. When I go around the country, I visit our highway offices, transit officials and air traffic control towers. I met 50 employees at a Cincinnati control tower recently. They said, “We’ve never had a secretary visit us before.” When I go to town hall meetings, I don’t talk too long. When I was in Cincinnati, I probably talked no more than five minutes. The rest of the time I spent answering questions. People are not bashful; they don’t need to be lectured to. These meetings are really good opportunities to listen to concerns about things that need to be changed.

How do you intend to maintain your gains in employee satisfaction moving forward?

One of the things we’ve done is focus on engagement of our top people. For four years we’ve had retreats where we take a day and a half, go off campus and talk about how we’re managing DOT. The retreats have built a real strong rapport among our top people here and that filters down to the employees. They know that people running these departments have the ear of the secretary and that that can make a difference too. We also hope to continue to use IdeaHub, which originated from some employees. You can suggest an idea, and a group of employees evaluate it. I think we’ve implemented over a hundred ideas that came directly from employees throughout the country about how to improve the workplace.

What would you tell your successor?

At the DOT, we have a crisis every day because of the nature of safety in all modes of transportation. Dealing with crises demands having qualified people who can give you good advice, and there’s a great group of really dedicated people here. When it comes to transportation and safety, having a large corps of people who work hard, are professional and are in it for the right reasons has been very helpful.

Who are your leadership role models?

Bob Michel was the minority leader when I worked for him, and what he developed in his office was a real spirit of family. He hired good people and let them do their jobs. That’s the leadership style I learned from Bob Michel, and it’s held me in good stead.

I would also count the president. He doesn’t try to micromanage agencies. He’s given us latitude to carry out our safety agenda, and he told me how much he appreciates how much we’ve done here. I think the president’s style about putting good people in place and letting them run agencies has held him in pretty good stead for four years.

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