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Federal Coach: Gary Locke on reforming a system: Talking leadership with the Secretary of Commerce

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

Gary Locke is the 36th U.S. Secretary of Commerce. He previously was a two-term governor of Washington and is the first Chinese-American in history to serve as governor. Secretary Locke is the presidential nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to China.

What leadership lessons did you learn as governor and how are you applying them as Secretary of Commerce?

We really have to recognize that politicals come and go, but civil servants are the ones that will always outlast us. Whether at the Commerce Department or elsewhere, the top leadership can help sketch out the framework and the objectives, but the details have to be done by the line staff and the people who carry out these duties on a day-to-day basis. By having them involved, it offers greater ownership and buy-in, which will help ensure the success of whatever project you’re working on.

When I came to the Commerce Department, there was a lot of discontent and complaints from employees of the Patent & Trademark Office. So two days on the job, I picked up the phone and dialed the heads of the two labor organizations and said, “I’m Gary Locke, Secretary of Commerce.” They asked, “Are you calling for the Secretary?" and I said, "No, I am the Secretary." They had never talked to the Secretary before. I brought them into my office and said we need their support to make changes, because on average it takes more than three years to get a patent application processed, which is absolutely unacceptable.

We are embarking on wholesale radical change, not just tinkering around the edges. I really believe you need to set super-high stretch goals that will force people to start from a clean sheet of paper and redesign organizations from scratch, as opposed to just making a few changes here and there. We have to involve the employees, and if we're going to be successful, they have to be part of that design and implementation process; it cannot be designed and written out by the top managers.

How do keep your employees motivated and engaged in the mission of the Department of Commerce?

I’ll go to a meeting with all the employees to talk about issues, make announcements and celebrate their accomplishments or progress on programs and initiatives. We celebrate their progress even if they don't reach their goals. Again, I very much believe that we have to set super-high stretch goals, because it's much better to achieve 75 percent of a super-high stretch goal than 90 percent of a mediocre goal.

For instance, we were hoping to reduce the backlog of patent applications to below 700,000 by the end of 2010. We didn't make it, but we still celebrated. We said, “Great job, let's keep going and not give up.” One of my management philosophies is that we will not hang people out to dry, scapegoat or reprimand them for acting in good faith and taking reasonable risks. Not every baseball team can win 100 percent of their games; one team wins, one team loses. We have to recognize that nobody's perfect, but as long as we're really trying hard and acting ethically, it's OK that things don't go the way we want. We just pat each other on the back and say, “Let's try again.”

What are your biggest management challenges and how are you addressing them?

The Commerce Department is an agency that has a variety of different bureaus that are seemingly unrelated. But actually, there is a unified theme to all of our programs and services to help companies be more innovative, at home and around the world. We’re making sure that people are prepared for “Snowmageddon” or hurricanes, promoting trade and helping companies sell more of American-made goods and services, and using the Census information for businesses to decide where they're going to site a big mall or one of the retail outlets.

I’ve noticed that we can be a lot more efficient in what we do and be a lot more responsive to our customers and stakeholders by having the different bureaus collaborate. We have a major project on reforming our acquisition processes and procedures to make sure that we have a unified, more coordinated purchasing program. Everybody is also helping to promote the president's agenda to double exports over the next five years. I've been really pleased at the efficiencies that we've been able to gain and the attention to management issues throughout all of the bureaus.

What do you consider to be a critical event to your becoming the leader you are today?

When I was elected county administrator for the metropolitan area of Seattle, there was a form that came to me for my signature involving a correction of an employee's classification number but no change in pay. It was signed by [six different people] and then I was the next signature. But I refused to sign. I told them six signatures for something that involves no monetary consequence is unnecessary and excessive. We went back and said, “Let's streamline it and get it down to just a couple of signatures.” Everybody fought us, because nobody wanted to be the last person signing the form for fear if something ever went wrong, they would get hung out to dry.

We need to empower people and understand and accept the fact that not everything will go 100 percent according to plan—there will be mistakes along the way. But as long as mistakes are a result of good faith, ethical behavior and people are trying hard, working diligently and acting reasonably, we've got to accept that. Otherwise, we're going to have bureaucracy after bureaucracy, paperwork after paperwork, signature after signature, which takes people away from working on the task at hand and the critical projects.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Apr 06, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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