The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently implemented the America Invents Act, a 2011 law designed to encourage innovation and spur economic growth that represents the most significant change in the patent system in 60 years. Teresa Stanek Rea, the acting under secretary of commerce for intellectual property and acting director of the USPTO, was deeply involved in putting the new law into effect. She spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What has surprised you most in your role?

Credit: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Credit: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

A. I found the job to be far bigger, more challenging and more important than I had imagined. We are a big player in the international scene with the America Invents Act—we're hoping that other countries will also modify their substantive patent laws to more closely align them with what we consider to be our best practices.

How did you prepare to transition into your position as acting director?

I had the opportunity to work with the previous director, David Kappos, for almost two years on a wide variety of projects as deputy under secretary and deputy director. He set up an outstanding leadership team that will be strong enough to take us through several administrations. So now it's my task and my goal to carry on the innovative leadership spirit, which he infused in this agency.

I would advise someone preparing for a leadership transition to try to understand the agency, the leadership and the personalities, and to get as much mentorship from as many people as possible. This is a rather large agency, with many moving parts, so building relationships and working to understand each of our leaders was incredibly beneficial to me.

What day-to-day management challenges do you face?

This has been a time of great change for our agency. We recently completed the implementation of the America Invents Act, which transformed our nation's patent laws as well as the way this agency does business. We have started to tailor our processes to better meet our stakeholder’s needs and to be a more user-friendly agency. One of the goals of the America Invents Act was to get quality innovations to the marketplace faster and more efficiently to help create new jobs, to stimulate our economic recovery and to ensure our country's position as the global innovation leader. We’re also focused on lowering the patent application backlog.  

The USPTO has made great strides in its "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" rankings. What has been done to engage employees in the mission of the organization?

This is a tribute to the tireless dedication of our employees and leaders, and especially our former director. The leadership team continues to examine each of the categories of the Employee Viewpoint Survey in greater depth every year so we can improve or sustain those things that we are doing well and fix any problems that may have been identified in the survey responses. This is critical to understanding our employees’ concerns and satisfaction with the agency overall.

One large component of our success is due to our telework program. The flexibility in work location for more than 64 percent of our workforce has reduced examiner turnover to historically low levels, increased examiner productivity and saved the agency millions of dollars each year in overhead costs.

What advice would you give to emerging federal leaders?

You have to have the required knowledge, skills and abilities to supervise, but a good leader also has to display common sense, practice good judgment, and be empathetic and reasonable. It's also important that a leader treat employees with respect and fairness, build trust and provide good guidance. Taking a personal interest in the employees—in their well-being, their goals and their success—is extremely beneficial. So it's that individual component and looking at the individual employee where we place a high emphasis.

Read also:

The federal agencies that rank best and worst on leadership

The intellectual property of leadership: An interview with USPTO’s David Kappos

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