Marta Brito Prez's journey

New Homeland Security leader will focus on people's concerns

When Marta Brito Prez speaks at a conference, people look up from their BlackBerries. The newly installed chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department has what Dan Blair, deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management, calls leadership presence. She “presents herself in a very engaging, high-energy way,” he said.

Prez comes to the DHS job after four years as project director for human capital performance at OPM, where she led the development and implementation of policies and programs to promote the strategic management of the human capital initiative in the President's Management Agenda.

Marta Perez “We miss her here at OPM,” Blair said. “She was our liaison to the agencies, and our liaison in driving” the President's Management Agenda in the strategic management of human capital.

Prez took an unusual route to the corridors of the federal government, coming by way of Camaguey, Cuba. In post-revolutionary Cuba, Prez's parents decided they wanted to give their four daughters opportunities they didn't see available under the Castro regime, Prez said. Prez's uncle was imprisoned in Cuba for listening to Radio Marti, a radio station the U.S. government finances.

The family left Cuba when Prez was a teenager and arrived in Rockville,Md., with the help of a church sponsor. Prez has lived in the same one-mile radius of Rockville ever since. “I've never been back [to Cuba], and I've never looked back. That's also what my parents taught us, that when we came here, this was our new life. So I made a life here.”

The Brito family arrived in the United States with nothing — no possessions, no money — and no English-speaking skills. Prez's father, Francisco Brito, died at age 50, soon after the family settled in Maryland. Prez's mother, however, is 80.When Prez's mother, Anna Brito, turned 60, she founded a Hispanic Methodist church in Bethesda, Md., and established a tutoring program for young Hispanics.Many alumni of the program come back as tutors after graduating from college. Prez describes her mother as “a real hero to me,my sisters and her nine grandkids.”

Prez stayed in Maryland for her education, graduating with a bachelor's degree in criminology from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in organization development and human resources from Johns Hopkins University.

She began her career as a public official in Montgomery County, Md. As director of the county's Office of Human Resources, she was in charge of human resources management for more than 10,000 employees and 4,000 retired employees and their dependents. She was also the county's chief negotiator for collective bargaining.

Former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan was impressed with Prez's ability to hire talented employees. Duncan first met Prez when she was a member of a police chief screening committee. “It was through that process that her leadership capabilities became apparent to me,”Duncan said. “She volunteered a considerable amount of her time to focus on the search and, in the process, recruited, screened and recommended some of the top talent in the county.”

It was during this stint with the county that Prez realized she had a responsibility that wasn't in the job description.

“You have a responsibility to people who trust you, who look to you for guidance, for mentoring,” she said.
 
While working in Montgomery County, she also developed a greater awareness of her ethnicity. The Hispanic population of Montgomery County was growing rapidly, and Prez was surprised to find that people looked to her as a role model. People were always asking her questions. They weren't asking her for jobs, she said. They were asking her about her life and experience. Prez hadn't realized the extent to which Hispanics, women and others were looking up to her. “I've tried to live up to” their expectations, she said.

Prez has moved gracefully through different levels of government — first at the local level and, for the past four years, in the federal government.Her current job at DHS reminds her of her county job.

“Being at Homeland Security is almost like going back home,” Prez said. It's very comfortable for her, running a human resources shop and developing policies and programs that will ultimately affect 180,000 DHS employees.Her work at DHS is much like her work for the county in the sense that she can see tangible results from programs she has helped to implement.

At OPM, Prez was designing models for assessing work that would affect 1.8 million employees. “OPM was an absolutely wonderful training ground,” she said. She learned how to execute a strategy across a big government organization. “There was no model or blueprint for what strategic human capital management was going to be about. So my job was to be the architect of that blueprint, which I really enjoyed. But it was basically a blank sheet of paper.”

OPM needed a way to “evaluate agencies' human capital practices against…what? And that ‘what' is what we ultimately developed as the human capital assessment accountability framework,” Prez said.

Prez is taking the helm at a critical time for DHS.With a commitment to adopting a new pay system, DHS wants to move as quickly as possible to implement meritbased pay. Although federal courts ruled that parts of the department's merit pay system,MaxHR, are illegal. DHS is committed to eventually making the system acceptable to its employees and managers.

Max HR will create a high-performing organizational culture, Prez said. It will set clear expectations for employees so they understand what is expected of them. Likewise, managers will be held accountable
for leading the organization.

“But at the end of the day,” Prez added, “I don't want our employees worrying about their pay or worrying about human resources. Our employees need to be worrying about the mission” of the agency.

To the extent that pay makes DHS a more attractive employer, MaxHR is useful, Prez said.“We'll use whatever plans — pay, recruitment, bonuses, all of that — to try to bring the best talent to the organization.”

Prez's goal as DHS' chief human capital officer is to do everything she can for employees, including “making sure we have the right resources and the right investment in training and development, education and opportunities for career growth,” she said. That way, she added, they “never have to look outside of DHS, and they never have to worry about anything other than the mission for which they've been hired.”

Walsh is a senior writer for the 1105 Government Information Group.
Prez wants to have more leaders in the pipelineThe Homeland Security Department is at an interesting tipping point, said Marta Brito Prez, the department's chief human capital officer. Cobbled together from 22 agencies into the third-largest Cabinet department, DHS is more unified than it has been in its brief history. In 2002, when Congress passed a law creating it, everyone wondered how all those agencies would be united.

“We're now at a point where we can actually start thinking about the future,” Prez said.

Prez wants to make significant progress in three areas: collaborating on human resources issues between the seven DHS components and headquarters; building a solid human resources infrastructure; and attracting, training and retaining the next generation of homeland security professionals.

Prez wants to develop a strong bond among the seven large DHS components and the department's headquarters. Prez and her team are designing a human resources plan that will articulate expectations and be an accountability plan, she said. “We'll be held accountable for accomplishing these things or not.”

Perhaps the most important elements of Prez's plans for DHS are their focus on hiring and leadership. “We want to make sure we have a strong pipeline of leaders,” she said.

Prez said she also wants to ensure that DHS has the right educational, training, and growth and development programs in place and “that we hold our workforce accountable.”

She also wants to create a culture of excellence around service and service delivery, sharing services and using resources throughout the agencies.

Working with such a large organization brings with it opportunities and challenges. For example, the collective whole can learn from one area's mistakes, Prez said. The same lesson doesn't have to be learned repeatedly.

DHS can set benchmarks and share best practices departmentwide, she said. “We're a much stronger organization when we think of ourselves as a whole rather than seven or eight discrete program areas.”

— Trudy Walsh
Marta Brito Prez's 4 leadership principlesA winding road led Marta Brito Prez to her position as chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department. Her journey began in Cuba, continued in Maryland and ended with her stepping into a new job as DHS' top workforce official. Along the way, she picked up these ideas about how to lead effectively.

1. Be passionate about what you're doing. “We work way too many hours and too intensely not to be passionate about what we're doing,” Prez said.

2. Know what you're doing. “Or people will see through you,” she said. “And your credibility and that of what you're trying to advance will suffer.”

3. Communicate your vision clearly. “So that others can follow you and know, ‘Ah, that's why I'm here.' Or, ‘This is how I link to that vision,' ” she said.

4. Lead by example. “If I say, ‘We really need to work hard,' but people see me coming in late and leaving early, that's not showing leadership,” she said.

— Trudy Walsh

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