(Gina McCarthy | Photo courtesy of EPA)

As head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Gina McCarthy is pursuing a number of hot-button initiatives regarding climate change, clean water and other anti-pollution measures. In this interview, McCarthy, a former assistant EPA administrator and head of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, discusses her leadership philosophy and how she manages an agency of 15,000 employees.

Tom Fox, who conducted the interview, is a guest writer for On Leadership. Fox is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and head of the organization’s Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. What drew you to public service?

A. I grew up in a family where many people worked in public service jobs. My father was a teacher for 40 years and my grandfather was in the postal service. Many people in my family were police officers, fireman and nurses. That’s what large Irish families in Boston were all about, and it was a time when there were great opportunities in the public sector. That was where my family headed, and I went along.

Q. What experiences have helped shape your views on leadership?

A. Because I’ve worked at all levels of government, I’ve done a lot of learning — much of it the hard way. I worked in my hometown, so when people came to complain to me, I knew their mother, their father and their kids. It was a personal experience, and it made me realize that most people really want to do the right thing.

It also taught me a lesson that I bring to my work today, which is that you can’t pigeonhole people’s intentions. You need to really invest time to listen, to welcome diverse opinions and to have faith that you’ll find a solution that will allow you to continue to make progress. I did not see environmental challenges as being, “You’ve got the bad guys here and the good guys are here.” I think that grounded me in what I would consider to be a realistic view of where we need to go environmentally.

Q. Do you have a management philosophy?

A. One of the most important things in leading an organization is to remind people of the mission and goals. And then it’s all about engagement. The people at EPA are really creative thinkers, so my goal is to make sure that we set clear expectations. I’m a big believer in keeping my eye on where we want to go, but really listening to people about the best way to get there. It’s important to engage people so that when you’re asking your people to do something, they know why and they know that they are capable of doing what you’re asking them to do.

Q. What do you do to foster employee engagement and keep up morale?

A. This happens to be a pretty difficult time for morale across the federal government, and the EPA was really hard hit by furloughs. So it’s been a challenge. Early on, I did a lot of open meetings that were live-streamed across the agency. When I first came into this job, I went around personally. I stood in doorways and welcomed people into the building. I met with people. I think people need to see you as a person first. They need to know that you’re accessible, that you understand the work and are willing to roll up your sleeves.

I’m not big on hierarchy, which probably drives people crazy. I give people an ability to see me and talk to me. I don’t want an environment where people are deferring.

Q. How do you find the time to make these personal connections?

A. I make a point to schedule that time. Not only does it benefit the employees, it reenergizes me. If all I did was travel around and go to Capitol Hill, I’d get a much different sense of what people are doing here and it wouldn’t be complete. I have purposely divided my life so that I’m not captured by all of the external challenges, but that I am making sure to devote the time internally to keep this agency healthy.

Q. Tell me about your management priorities.

A. We have been looking at how we manage with our limited resources. We recognize that we need to look at state, local and tribal governments not as people we regulate, but as our co-regulators and our partners. We are looking at our decision-making processes —cutting out unnecessary steps, cutting out resources that we don’t need so that we can become leaner as an agency. We also have done a very broad look at our hiring and how to start realigning our budget to high-priority items.

Q. You have worked on environmental policy at the state and local levels. What challenges did you face moving to the federal government?

A. Working at the federal level is more complicated because it is a little less nimble. There are a lot of process issues that make it difficult to make decisions decisively and quickly. We can make decisions, but it gets complicated for the political folks to come in and get familiar enough to know what you can accomplish at any given point in time.

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