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The Federal Coach

Donna Shalala's reflections on running HHS

Since June 2001, Donna E. Shalala has served as the University of Miami's president. In 1993 President Clinton appointed Shalala the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) where she served for eight years, becoming the longest serving HHS Secretary in U.S. history. At the end of her tenure, The Washington Post described her as "one of the most successful government managers of modern times." Shalala was also one of the country's first Peace Corps volunteers.

How did you engage your employees at HHS?
[When] Newt Gingrich closed the government down, we were faced with not being able to give people their full check, because we didn't have enough money. We came up with the idea of not taking deductions out so everyone in the department got their full check. The other thing we did during that time is we told supervisors to call their employees on the phone and see how they were doing. We also sent them all a letter from me saying hang in there, you're valuable, we care about you and we'll keep you informed. That made a big difference.

We had a departmental newsletter and we were talking about healthy foods, and I said maybe I should put my tabouli recipe in. Everybody scoffed at the idea of a cabinet secretary putting in a recipe, but I've run into people today who still have that recipe. It was a human touch. If you look at my official portrait in the department, it was a portrait of me and the kids of the child-care center. It wasn't a head shot. People in the department still have that picture.

What are the leadership lessons that you learned as the longest-serving HHS Secretary?

Washington is a city of personal relationships, and the longer you stay, the deeper those relationships are, so leadership got easier. I learned patience. I learned to listen to the public. I spent a lot of time going around the country not just to give speeches but to listen to people. As time went on, I gave fewer speeches and more times I just went into a room, sat on a chair and listened to people and their concerns. It influenced how we shaped policy.

Finally, we integrated the political appointees with the civil service and the Senior Executive Service (SES). By the time that I left, I couldn't remember who was a political appointee and who was an SES, because we never had meetings just with the political appointees. We pulled everybody together.

What do you think are the most important elements of success and how can a federal leader best foster these elements?

You have to give people clear direction but not give them the answer. They have to know they can't end-run to get to you, that they have to work through the issues together. And they have to know that when they're under attack, you're going to support them. You're not just going to protect yourself or the president. You're going to support them. I also hired people that were experts in their areas. There are a lot of brilliant people in Washington, but brilliance is really overrated. Team players are harder to find, people who can work together--because most of the issues you deal with are so complex they require teams, not just a single leader.

A lot has been said about this generation wanting to make a difference. How do you see government as an opportunity for them to lead change?

I think it's an extraordinary opportunity. Government is still a life-or-death profession. It's still a profession that makes a difference in millions of people's lives all over the world. Whether they go in for a short period of time or spend a lifetime there, I have an enormous respect for people in government, and I had the opportunity to work with some of the best who spent their careers there. But when I talk about the best, I'm not just talking about the SES. I'm talking about people at every level of the government.

What do you consider to be a critical event--either educational or experiential--to your becoming the leader you are today?

The Peace Corps. I had been a student leader all the way from elementary school through college. But the Peace Corps, because it's like having the rug pulled out from under you, you really need to be entrepreneurial to be successful. You're in a foreign culture; it's complex. You don't have the same type of support system around you. You learn how to do a lot of things on your own, including paying attention to details. Of all the preparation in my life, that was the best. You can drop me any place on Earth, and I could figure out a way to organize anybody.

I encourage young people, no matter what profession they are going into, to do community service. Most of our students here at the University of Miami do some community service as part of their college career, and they should continue to do so either part time or full time. It's part of being a very good citizen.

By Tom Fox

 |  November 17, 2010; 9:45 AM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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You guys should stop complaining because, one the health care we have now isnt as good as it was supposed to be. also the law has just been signed so give it some time. so if u want to say u have the right to choose tell that to ur congress men or state official. If you do not have insurance and need one You can find full medical coverage at the lowest price check http://ow.ly/3akSX If you have health insurance and do not care about cost just be happy about it and trust me you are not going to loose anything!

Posted by: crawiford | November 17, 2010 11:07 AM

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