Julián Castro became secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in July after serving as mayor of San Antonio, Texas. He now is responsible for overseeing 8,000 employees and a budget of $46 billion, as well as for promoting community development and housing opportunities nationwide.
Castro talked about his leadership philosophy, improving employee morale at HUD and how he spends his time away from the office during a conversation 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. How would you describe your leadership style?
A. I came up through local government, so it’s a very close-to-the-ground approach. I think of myself as a "man in the crowd" type of leader, in the sense of being close to employees, getting a sense from them of the challenges and the opportunities that we have and what we need to do to be better. I’ve made a point of spending a lot of time walking the building at HUD and listening to employees. I also have been going to our regional and field offices. I’ve visited 28 cities and 18 states in less than five months.
Q. What advice do you have for other federal leaders?
A. Stay close to the workforce and the people you serve. That’s why I love visiting with our employees across the United States and visiting with public housing residents. Secondly, have a strong vision of what you want to accomplish. One of the first things I did at HUD was set that vision. We call HUD the Department of Opportunity, and we’ve laid out six different items as part of the vision of what we want to do during the next two years.
Q. What are the qualities or traits that you want in your management team?
A. One of the challenges in a big federal bureaucracy is ensuring that you have individuals who are highly competent and willing to be candid. So I want folks who are accomplished in terms of their ability and who can work as a team in a candid, blunt way to cut through a lot of the red tape.
Q. HUD’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” ranking is low again this year. What are your plans to improve employee job satisfaction and morale?
A. First of all, we’re getting better about keeping employees in the loop as changes are made in the organization. We have frequent e-mails and newsletters. We are trying to get employee feedback. We’ve ramped up something we call Switchboard, which is an employee engagement and feedback tool to take suggestions. Right now, we’re working on a package of new policies that we’re going to implement based on the feedback that we’ve gotten in the last five months.
We’re also focused on improving the onboarding experience for new employees, by giving them stronger training at the beginning and offering a support network for those who have been here less than five years.
Q. How do you approach your meetings with employees?
A. At the regional offices and the field offices, I make a brief statement to the employees about why I’m there and some of the things that we’re doing to try to improve employee performance and job satisfaction. Then I open it up for questions and have a candid dialogue about any issues that they want to bring up. Usually it is a good conversation, because there are always some employees who are willing to get things off their chest. The labor union leaders are among those asking questions and I’ve taken these questions openly.
Q. Can you give me an example of an issue that came up that you were able to address?
A. When I was in Salt Lake City, someone brought up the issue regarding employees who may have to relocate because of our reorganization of our multi-family housing offices. They mentioned that it hasn’t been convenient for them to get the information they need to get reimbursed for their moving expenses.
I looked into that to ensure we can improve the relocation process and that our employees get the resources they need in a timely way. That’s a small example, but for the people who are going through it, it’s meaningful. We haven’t completely implemented the solution, but we’re working on that now.
Q. What are some of the things you do in your free time to unwind from the pressures of work?
A. My wife and daughter live here in D.C., so we spend a lot of time in the evenings at home watching TV and reading to our daughter, or going out exploring the city because we are new to it.
Q. What would be something that the public would find surprising about you?
A. My perception of what people think about me, at least from the media coverage, is that I’m fairly boring, a kind of quiet and reserved person. I’m not quite as buttoned-down as folks might believe.