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Opinion A conversation on leadership with the deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection

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Kevin K. McAleenan is the deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, making him the chief operating official of the 60,000-employee agency that handles customs, immigration and border security at our nation’s airports, seaports and along our land borders.

McAleenan, who played an integral role in the development and implementation of CBP’s antiterrorism strategy, discussed his motivation for public service, the challenges he faces and his passion for University of Michigan football. McAleenan was interviewed by Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What motivated you to pursue a career in public service, and in particular at Customs and Border Protection?

A. It was really born from a desire to do something that mattered, inspiration from my father’s military service, and wanting to be part of the solution after the 9/11 attacks.

Q. How do you feel about your work?

A. I don’t think there’s any more challenging mission in law enforcement. We are at the center of counter-terrorism, border security and immigration, and expediting trade and travel. I really don’t think there’s a more important civilian agency of government.

Q. What is your average day like?

A. It could mean dealing with a major interdiction involving the smuggling of people, or narcotics into the country or preventing a potential terrorist from boarding an aircraft at a foreign airport, or dealing with a budget issue. And then there are the long-term strategic meetings where we are defining requirements for technology three years from now or just keeping everything running in the right direction.

Q. What are your toughest challenges?

A. It’s the organizational and mission support side that really presents some significant management issues, including trying to recruit and hire top law enforcement personnel with very stringent requirements for passing polygraph tests, background investigations and drug-use history. We need to sustain 45,000 operators out of the 60,000-person workforce.

Q. What are some of your top priorities?

A. One of CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske’s priorities is earning and maintaining the public trust through the transparency of our policies, our responses to incidents, and our approach to ensuring the integrity in the workforce. If you’re unable to achieve that, you won’t have the support of the American people or Congress.

Q. How do you keep a line of sight over a workforce that is spread out in so many different locations and in charge of so many different responsibilities?

A. It’s about having clear priorities and your executive team pulling in the same direction. It also is about having sound and clear reporting requirements so when incidents arise, you can stay on top of things.

Q. What is your leadership philosophy?

A. My leadership really derives from the belief that passion and sincerity are key to conveying why we do what we do.

Q. Are there any individuals who have helped shape your leadership approach?

A. I’ve learned a lot from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. He has shown personal diligence on every key decision that he makes. He needs to understand every angle. He needs to be intellectually convinced. He doesn’t accept the briefing document, but he needs to work through it.

That sort of responsibility and accountability for key decisions is a mark of leadership that I’ve learned from and hope I can carry forward.

Q. Was there a pivotal experience or a management mistake that taught you a valuable leadership lesson?

A. One experience was setting up our pre-clearance operations in Abu Dhabi. We were essentially doing the work that we usually do after a plane arrives in the United States, but doing it before the planes departs by ensuring all the travelers are permissible to enter the U.S., and that there’s nothing dangerous in their baggage or carry-on goods.

With the decision to expand into Abu Dhabi, we missed some critical steps in terms of building external support, so we ended up in a significant political battle. I learned from that experience. We went back to square one and did the hard work of explaining the value and the benefits for pre-clearance and worked closely with the air carriers, the aviation industry and our foreign partners, and we were able to pursue the expansion in a transparent manner.

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

A. I was born in Hawaii and the only place that I would rather be than working here with the team is to be with my wife and daughters at my favorite beach on Oahu.

Q. If I were to talk to people in the workplace who know you best, what would they say about you?

A. I hope they would say that I’m extremely committed to the success of the agency and to our priority mission of preventing terrorists from coming into the country. I’ve been laser focused on that since day one. They would probably say I'm dialed in on that issue, maybe to a fault.

The other thing they might note is that I can’t stop talking about my daughters or college football. Left to my own devices, I’m probably talking about the latest exploits of my daughters, who are eight and six, or the Michigan Wolverines.

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