Federal Coach: Talking leadership with Commissioner Margaret Hamburg

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

Margaret A. Hamburg, an experienced medical doctor, scientist and public health executive, has been the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration since 2009, helping the agency carry out its mission to protect and promote the public health. Hamburg graduated from Harvard Medical School and has served as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Hamburg spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership.

What’s your advice for other federal leaders looking for ways to bring innovation to their organizations?

Begin by focusing on the mission of the agency. At FDA, our mission is to promote and protect the health of the public. As commissioner, I’ve worked hard to galvanize people around that idea. I want employees to be thinking about the unique and essential contribution they are making to our mission.

Once an organization has a strong sense of mission, leaders can focus on trying new things. In these challenging times, sometimes the only way to accomplish your mission is by doing something in a different way. It’s very been important for us to respond to the extraordinary advances in science and technology that are constantly unfolding around us.

We’ve also had to respond to changes in our environment. We understand that we live in a globalized world and can no longer behave as an exclusively domestic agency. The world is moving so fast around us that we certainly can’t stand still.

How have you been able to keep the folks at FDA motivated and engaged in the agency’s mission?

It’s been critically important to remind our employees that their work is appreciated, understood and respected. I would be a total fool to believe that I could this job effectively without the kind of talented, knowledgeable people we have at FDA. I have a responsibility to let them know that I understand their importance to the institution and appreciate what they bring to it.

I support them in their work, intellectually and scientifically, and am an advocate for their work-life needs and the advancement of their professional careers. I am committed to making sure our employees have career development pathways, ongoing education, as well as engagement with the broader scientific community, which will inspire them to do their jobs better. This ability to continue learning from, and interacting with, colleagues — inside and outside of the FDA — is essential to keeping everyone motivated and engaged. And they need to be rewarded for the important work they do.

What are you doing to attract new talent?

One of the things we’re trying to do is broaden understanding of the agency. We are unique in that we are a science-based regulatory agency with an exciting and important public health mission. However, many young people pursuing careers in science or medicine or public health still don’t think of the FDA.


We’re creating more opportunities for individuals at the beginning of their careers to do important, meaningful work and engage in cutting-edge science. We’re working in collaborative ways with colleges and universities and have introduced Centers of Excellence in Regulatory Science, including in this region at the University of Maryland and Georgetown University. There, students can contribute to important research projects that support critical issues in medical product development and regulation. They can learn more about what it’s like to work at the FDA before graduating and searching for their first jobs. We’ve also created fellowship programs, for both early- and mid-level professionals.

Why is it important for traditionally male-dominated fields to have female leaders?

I don’t want to overgeneralize, but I believe that women are typically drawn to leadership styles that focus on consensus building, effective listening and working in teams. That’s certainly been my leadership style, and I think it’s been very successful. I’ve been a medical and public health professional as well as a mother. I became skilled at juggling a number of priorities and competing interests. Like many other female leaders, I’ve tried to serve as a role model for the young women at my organization who are trying to balance a high-level leadership position anda family. While there is no magic formula for finding that balance, those who are determined can create a system for managing it all.

How have you grown as a leader?

When I came to Washington, I had just completed my training in medicine. I was interested in health policy because I was watching the AIDS epidemic emerge and seeing how medicine and the care that I was delivering in the hospital was just one piece of a broader set of overlapping issues — social, political, economic, legal. I wanted to explore how to make a larger difference.

Coming to Washington was like doing a fellowship in health policy. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at HHS was a wonderful perch. I was special assistant to the director, and it was my first deep exposure to health policy and the role of government in health. I found it quite compelling. I’ve grown in the sense that I had not anticipated taking on these kinds of leadership roles. I found myself presented with extraordinary opportunities. I hesitated before I said yes, but with each door that opened and I walked through, I found more exciting opportunities and the enormous reward of feeling like I could make a difference.

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