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Talking Leadership With the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Elisabeth Hagen

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Elisabeth Hagen is the undersecretary for food safety at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) where she oversees the programs and policies associated with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). FSIS is USDA's public health regulatory agency that ensures the nation's commercial meat, poultry and egg products are safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. Hagen previously served as the USDA's chief medical officer, advising the agency on key health issues including food safety and nutrition. Before joining public service, she taught and practiced medicine in both the private and academic sectors. Hagen 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 made you the leader you are today?

I would say that my medical training has probably been the most significant influence on me as a leader. I am a physician, and medical training was humbling. Simply having an extensive knowledge base and an advanced degree from an important institution doesn't mean you have all, or sometimes any, of the answers. I had to listen and observe and absorb everything I could, and be willing to learn from everybody and every experience around me.

My passion for this work was fueled by my time in the medical profession. I took care of gravely ill patients who sometimes died from the pathogens that we're trying to prevent now, people whose lives were changed forever by contaminated food. Because of my experience, I know that the work that we do here really matters.

What leadership lessons have you learned from your USDA work?

Being yourself and being authentic really matters when it comes to leading any group of people. A lot of it is about listening, seeing yourself as part of a team and thinking about employees as people who work with you as opposed to people who work for you. You should be willing to talk about your team and the work they do, and let accomplishments you achieved together reflect back on them.

Sometimes you need to change your communication style. Leading a group of scientists and public-health professionals is very different from leading a group of policy makers or financial professionals. Try to channel their energy, knowledge, education and expertise in a way that supports policy development.

How do you keep employees motivated and engaged?

People really respond to a sense of mission and purpose, especially when you're talking about a mission as important as the one we have, which is protecting American consumers, by making sure the food they put on their tables is safe. We engage employees at every level, asking them if they see themselves connected to this public-health mission. We have a philosophy called One Team, One Purpose. It doesn't matter if you're inspecting meat and poultry on the line, or you're teaching kids about food safety. All of us have a single purpose in mind -- protecting pubic health. We built an entire strategic plan around it. One of our three key strategic themes is empowering our people and strengthening FSIS' infrastructure. There is a real recognition that we can't accomplish our mission without taking care of our people.

How do you solicit ideas and maintain regular contact with employees?

We do a lot of face-to-face communication with our employees. I have been doing town hall meetings of all sizes and at all times of the day, recognizing that the majority of our workforce is inspecting food products during the work day. We show up at events, sit and talk with employees. Listening to what's really on people's minds -- the good and the bad -- is really important, and effective, as we look for ways to improve our organization.

It is also important to recognize that people need communication particularly when there is uncertainty. The sooner you can provide some degree of certainty and say, "Here are the things we know, here are the things we don't know," the more effective you will be. For example, we have a long-term, department-wide initiative to become more efficient and deliver better services, but it can mean changes for employees, consolidation and new assignments. We're going to have a reorganization of some of our district offices in the coming year and this will impact practical aspects of people's lives.

What are your biggest day-to-day challenges?

One is the magnitude of our mission and the degree to which it changes and evolves. In our kind of work, our performance absolutely cannot slip. There is too much on the line. We have about 10,000 employees in hundreds of locations around the country doing a wide variety of jobs. When I think about that, it can be daunting. But we manage it with an incredible team of leaders and managers. We empower them, hold them to high standards and value them. Our aim in writing our strategic plan was to ensure that every employee can see him or herself in it and see a clear line between what this organization does and what they do every day.

What are examples of innovation at your agency?

The best example is the Public Health Information System. It's a complete overhaul of our data infrastructure including how we collect, analyze and interface data with other critical systems throughout the federal government. We've streamlined scores of data systems and eliminated data mining on a paper record and replaced it with a system that allows us to identify concerns in real time.

You have to be willing to champion good ideas, especially if they are not your own. My role as a leader is to put my passion for my work and our mission out there on display. Then people understand why they're here and that they're supported in reaching the organization's goals. In a difficult budget time, people get creative. They have to, because they have fewer resources but they can't compromise their organization's mission.

This piece was originally published in the Washington Post.

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