Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (R) talks with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker (L) at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece, 21 November 2013. EPA/ARIS MESSINIS

As secretary of the Department of Commerce, Penny Pritzker has the job of promoting American businesses' economic development and overseeing a wide range of agencies, from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the International Trade Administration to the Census Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Pritzker, who founded and ran five different businesses in real estate, hospitality, senior living and financial services, spoke about her management and leadership philosophy with Tom Fox, 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. After years in the private sector, what were some surprises about running the Department of Commerce?

A. The challenge I faced early on was not having a team in place and having to hire a lot of people quickly. When I came in, about 15 of my 22 Senate-confirmed positions were vacant or about to become vacant, and 80 percent of the leadership jobs in the Office of the Secretary were vacant.

Q. What is your leadership philosophy?

A. I believe the biggest priority in any leader’s job is to put together a team and really empower the team. Another thing I’ve been trying to do is provide a culture where people are proud to work, feel appreciated and understand the mission.

Q. Recent events like the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs highlight how difficult it can be for executives to stay in contact with employees on the front lines. What are you doing to make sure you get unfiltered information about organizational problems?

A. You have to celebrate people who bring problems forward. I have an operating committee meeting every week with senior leadership where we just talk about the problems. Nobody gets blamed, nobody gets in trouble. It’s all about revealing problems and coming up with solutions. I also try to be the best listener that I can be. There are so many things tugging at my time, so focusing on listening is something that is a challenge every day.

I have said to my closest advisers, “Your job is not to tell me about something you’re concerned with, it’s to get in my face and make sure I’ve heard you. You’re not off the hook by just telling me something in passing in the hallway.” So there must be a collective ownership of the challenges we face. I’m not pretending we’ve got it all right. I’m just trying to create an environment where people feel comfortable to say that something doesn’t work.

Q. How do you reinforce this message?

A. It’s a matter of how you respond when someone kept something a secret versus when someone elevates a problem. You want word to get out that when you elevate a problem, you get more resources and more people trying to help; but when you keep a problem a secret, you get chastised.

[When you do hear about problems,] you basically have to remain calm and say, “Okay, let’s step back. What are the resources we need, what else do we need to do, how should we address this? What do you think we should be doing?” The thing that upsets me is when people keep something a secret.

Q. Can you point to some experiences that helped you become a better leader?

A. Well, the lessons I’ve shared with you — about the importance of people and culture and sharing problems — all come from the scars on my back from making mistakes in my career.

Q. What have you done to improve morale at the department?

A. The day after I was sworn in, I went to the front entrances of the building and greeted people as they came to work. I went to each department and agency to shake hands and have employees tell me what they do, how long they have been with us and what challenges they’re facing. There’s no way that I’ll meet all 47,000 employees, but I want there to be a sense that, “Hey, the secretary of commerce cares about us. And she cares about our success.”

Q. What are your proudest accomplishments at the department?

A. The thing I’m most proud of is that people trust each other. To run an organization, a lot of different people have to do their jobs well. We have to trust each other and work closely together. I like the attitude and I like the culture at the department. I feel a difference in morale from the day that I arrived.

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