Federal Coach: HUD Chief of Staff Laurel Blatchford on risk taking and engaging employees

The Federal Coach asks Laurel A. Blatchford, chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about her leadership secrets.

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Laurel A. Blatchford, chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) since 2009, previously worked for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg first at City Hall and then at the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). During her time in city government, Blatchford worked with agencies and private partners on mayoral initiatives that included the redevelopment of the Far West Side of Manhattan, the transformation of the High Line park, and the Mayor’s affordable housing plan.

Was there a critical event that led to your becoming the leader you are today?

There are two: one professional and one personal. 9/11 was an enormously significant experience for me, as it was for so many people in New York. Following the attacks, the city was in terrible shape – but it represented an enormous opportunity for collaboration. People wanted to work for the mayor to help rebuild New York and were working together like never before. This was a lesson about uniting around a common goal.

Also, I'm a mom, so I have a much greater tolerance for chaos than I used to, but I also know when to be decisive and pull the plug. The mix of patience and impatience you have to have as a parent is definitely applicable to my job. You have to learn to trust your instincts in the moment. That has been enormously valuable as well.

How did you overcome risk-averse cultures in City Hall and the federal government?

The mayor and deputy mayor always said, "Set a goal, make it public." At HPD, we set out a 165,000-unit housing plan and used that as a target. We told people this is our goal, and we stuck to it. It had a new construction component and a housing preservation component – all those pieces were totally transparent. It was a very useful tool for getting people not only to take risks and think differently about how to accomplish their goals, but it also served us well in budget negotiations and in communities across the city. People wanted to see the plan fulfilled.

What leadership lessons did you learn by working with Mayor Bloomberg, and how have you applied those at HUD?

It goes back to risk taking. If an employee in the private sector takes risks and some of those risks lead to good outcomes, you reward them and give them more resources. All too often, the opposite is true in the public sector and people don’t feel like they can take risks. So the idea of letting people take risks and providing support from leadership – even when they fail – is really important.

The other thing is focusing on data. Something I think has been successful here is HUDStat, a data-driven performance-management system instituted by Secretary Donovan that was modeled on COMPstat in New York City. Program leaders make a regular presentation of performance data to the senior team and the group uses it to understand program successes and problems. It’s about our biggest goals; it makes them very public and leads to a lot of information sharing and discussion that is useful in managing our agency.

How do you and the secretary keep employees motivated and engaged in HUD’s work day to day?

Last year's Best Places to Work was a wake-up call to us. To not only see that we had suffered in some of the indicators but also that other agencies had been moving ahead spurred some healthy competition and a desire to refocus and reinvest. Through our strategic planning process we refocused in three main areas: investing in people, increasing accountability and busting bureaucracy. We ran a campaign called, "I Believe in HUD," using things as simple as posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts to spread the word. We did a town hall in Atlanta that was video-conferenced to find out what is on employees’ minds. We hold coffees where randomly selected employees sit down with Secretary Donovan. It’s a way to communicate what we're doing and get feedback.

We found, for all its challenges, HUD has an enormous reserve of connection to the mission. I don't mean to minimize some very substantial issues that people have raised, but there's also this larger kind of passion that is a great motivator.

What techniques do you use to identify and manage agency problems?

I try to understand the larger context of the problems. Is the burning issue the tip of an iceberg or an isolated event? What is the larger, long-term significance? The struggle is to maintain strategic focus while digging deep into the problem solving needed.

You can never learn too much from people. The challenge is making sure I'm in the right conversations and they keep happening. I talk to people in the elevator, in the HUD gym, anywhere. I always welcome feedback and problem solving. There is so much I have to fix, so making sure I understand what we’re doing right, as well, is important.

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