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Lessons from a longtime Washington leader

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David Mader left the Internal Revenue Service in 2003 for the private sector after more than three decades of federal service. Yet last year he returned to government, from Booz Allen Hamilton, this time as controller of the Office of Management and Budget. He is now focused on improving management across federal agencies, working on issues such as finances, technology and acquisition.

Mader spoke about leadership, motivating employees, time management and his love of motorcycles during an interview with Tom Fox. Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is a vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Q. What's the best advice about work that you have ever received?

A. It’s about the mission, not about you. I also was advised to be humble.

Q. What mistake of yours turned out to be instrumental in improving your leadership skills?

A. Growing up in management in the 1970s is very different than today. These were managers who were World War II veterans, and it was a very command-and-control kind of environment. The biggest lesson I learned was about the need to change to a leadership style that is more about collaboration, inspiration, motivation and working in teams to achieve the mission.

Q. Do you have any advice about improving employee morale and engagement?

A. When you look at what motivates people to not only join but to stay in the public sector, it’s about the environment that managers create. There’s a lot that we can do, something as simple as saying, “Thanks for the great job that you did,” or by giving employees an opportunity to take on new challenges.

Pay is important — we all have to live — but it’s not the chief motivator. The key is allowing employees to use their skills and knowledge to make a difference.

Q. What else can a leader do to create a high-performing environment?

A. Get to know your people — not just what they do on the job, but also what they are interested in outside of work. Being able to understand what their individual needs are is important.

Q. What’s your best time management tip?

A. If you ask me what I have failed at for my entire career, it’s time management. I get consumed with work. The work demand never stops; it’s just a matter of setting boundaries.

One of the things as a leader in the private sector and in government I came to understand is that you need to set an example. I vowed that, when I came back into government, I wouldn’t send work emails over the weekend. Nothing that I do is so critical that it can’t wait until Monday morning. As leaders, we have the responsibility, especially in this environment, to help our people to understand that I don’t expect you to be on 24/7.

Q. What are some management issues you are working on now?

A. One issue is to continue to develop individuals. But another, more importantly, is to complement the skills of my team, because everybody has different experiences and strengths. How do you bring them together since the sum of the parts is greater than the individual? It’s like sports.

Q. Is there anything you keep on your desk for sentimental reasons?

A. That’s a gene that I’m missing. I have a son and daughter-in-law and an almost three-year-old granddaughter. They are my focus outside of work. But when I’m at work, I’m focused on work. I have lots of really cute pictures of my granddaughter on my phone if anyone wants to see them.

Q. Do you have a favorite book?

A. I’m a Civil War buff, not from a military perspective but from a leadership perspective. I am interested in why some of the Civil War leaders were more effective than others. That spills over into why some government leaders are more effective than others. Why was Colin Powell, for example, as effective as he was in the variety of positions he held in the military and as Secretary of State?

I also like books about leadership, such as the story of Jack Welch, the former chairman and CEO of General Electric. How could a leader move into a company that was high performing and take it to that next level? I focus on what makes leaders successful and what causes leaders to derail.

Q. What would people be surprised to know about you?

A. I really like riding my motorcycle.

Q. What would you like to be remembered for accomplishing?

A. One is to have made a difference and the other is to have been a good public servant.

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