Stacia A. Hylton is director of the U.S. Marshals Service, the law enforcement agency within the Department of Justice responsible for federal judicial security, fugitive apprehension, witness security, asset forfeiture, and prisoner transportation, custody and safety.
Hylton has 30 years of law enforcement experience, including 10 years on the Elite Special Operations Group. She was an instructor at the training academy, teaching firearms, physical fitness and kinesic interrogation interviewing techniques, and an incident commander for assignments such as Ground Zero after 9/11.
How did serving in the Special Operations Group prepare you for your position?
I always reflect back on the basic selection school. It was grueling. One hundred deputies applied; only sixty were chosen; and only eleven graduated. It showed the intensity of that training. It’s like a military boot camp, focused on tactical training with some of the most advanced equipment available to law enforcement and on strategic operation planning, designed to test your ability to accomplish missions in the most adverse situations. This is the group that we pull in for missions, whether to Afghanistan or when we have significant fugitive hunts.
Once we made it through Special Operations Group Training, we were called on, sometimes at two in the morning. One time it was to respond to Hurricane Hugo to support and protect FEMA. You never know what you’re going into, what the assignment is or where you’re going to be deployed. That’s true for leadership. You’re running a national organizational, responding at all hours. Usually, you’re at a level with high potential impact on operations or administration. You have to be on the cutting edge. You have to be able to work well in stressful situations.
What lessons did you learn from being in crisis mode?
Although we have to react to life-and-death situations, there’s the administrative side of the job—the fact you might be facing a 20-percent funding cut. How do you make sure you can meet your law enforcement responsibilities and achieve those reductions? Making sure you’re strategic is key. Leading your people through the crisis requires steadiness, strength and compassion. You must also connect to people. In government now, we face pay freezes, potential furloughs and reductions of workforce. You have to be with them even when it’s difficult. You’re gaining strength from the workforce and engaging them by being close to them, furthering your ability to lead.
How do you keep people engaged in this critically important mission?
Those that commit to protect and serve have it in their basic DNA to put themselves out there. They’re highly motivated. Any leader has to communicate the goals and objectives effectively to the workforce in a national organization and unite the leadership team by keeping them informed of current challenges, engaging them in solutions and leveraging technology. We’re always looking ahead to achieve results. I’m a strong believer in crafting the vision and the mission statement and making sure there’s a five-year strategic plan that drives results. Most people write a strategic plan and put it on the shelf. I’m all about, “Nope, we’re going to link it to a business plan and put it in people’s performance work plans. Then we’ll have a metric to measure.” We can’t survive on the fact that we arrest 122,000 fugitives. We need to show our performance metrics. You have to think like private industry today.
How has your experience on the front lines helped you in your current role?
Dealing with life-and-death situations every day requires unique self-discipline. It’s critical to be focused on what you’re doing and train constantly. That means physically, mentally, practically and especially strategically. You’re not in an eight-to-five job. We carry a great deal of authority with that badge and it comes with a great deal of responsibility.
I try to create a work environment for employees that instills pride and one that reflects the principles and standards of the U.S. Marshals Service. I also try to make a direct correlation to how they contribute to our success. You don’t have to be in law enforcement, carrying a badge. You can be an administrative employee or an analyst in intel, but you contribute every day. Others also have instilled in me the desire to volunteer for everything. Every experience contributes to your learning and learning is the foundation you pull from as a leader.
Any other insights into your leadership role?
You have to be cognizant that there are political ramifications of what you do in a government leadership job. How does this action impact the workforce, or the department and its leadership? How will it reflect upon the White House? How will Congress react? You have to stop, no matter how quickly things are moving. You have to figure out, how do I need to maneuver so there’s a successful resolution without a negative impact on anyone?
Can you point to one critical event made you the leader you are today?
In addition to being a competitive athlete, being a member of the special operations group— learning the tactics and tactical operations—formed my self-discipline and that concept of teamwork. Bosses challenged me with difficult and high-visibility responsibilities. They cultivated me to be a problem solver and accomplish the missions. That helped me to be able to lead more effectively.
Government leaders, nominate your outstanding federal employees for the 11th annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal (Sammies). Considered the “Oscars of Washington,” the Sammies are the most prestigious awards honoring our nation’s public servants. Nominations are accepted at servicetoamericamedals.org through January 6, 2012.