05/12/2011 01:20 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2011

The Federal coach: Director of the Office of Personnel Management on Revitalizing the Federal Workforce

As Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), John Berry is the government's "chief people person." He is responsible for recruiting, hiring and setting benefits policies for 1.9 million civilian federal employees. He began his career in employment and retirement issues serving as Rep. Steny Hoyer's legislative director for 10 years. Prior to his current position, he was the director of the National Zoo.

How do you view your role in helping to reinvigorate the federal workforce?

It's important to eliminate red tape and unleash the creative power of our employees. What motivates people most is purpose. With the anti-government sentiment out there, we're living in a challenging time. Whether it's trying to strengthen the economic recovery, or controlling spending in an era of declining resources, these are significant challenges. Highly motivated people love a challenge. We're fortunate to start with such a well-motivated, well-trained and highly educated workforce.

Our primary focus in reinvigorating the federal workforce is recognizing the importance of trust, flexibility and respect. They do not respond to patronizing, management-led approaches. The workforce has amazing power, and if managers and employees engage in respectful communication, the potential is unlimited, whether it's inventing new drugs to save children, protecting our environment or providing for our nation's security.

How can federal leaders attract the next generation to public service?

Remember the average age in mission control when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon was 26. Government has always been able to attract bright young minds. That was the motivating principle behind the president's executive order on student employment. Our application process had gotten too confusing. Students didn't know how to get into government. We have cut down the weeds and created three clean pathways for students and recent grads.

Part of the Student Pathways Initiative is reinvigorating the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program. Many managers today came in as PMFs years ago under this powerful program. These are future government leaders. We are working with agencies to answer the following: How can we create ongoing training and engagement? How can the agencies work to inspire them and give them an opportunity for growth? What do they need to develop so they can become the next generation of leaders?

What are some of the leadership lessons that you learned from working on Capitol Hill?

The most important thing I learned is that no party has a lock on the truth. If you're not too bound by ideology, you can accomplish an awful lot by working across party lines. Coming together in good faith, and reasoning together, give us our best shot at approaching the truth. Compromise is not a mortal sin but an essential virtue-and the oil that keeps the government machinery running. Finally, if you don't care who gets the credit, you can get a lot done in this town.

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

Two things happened to me when I was 25. I was working in the General Assembly in Annapolis and Rep. Steny Hoyer called and asked me to work for him in Washington. I had a very comfortable job, so it was a risk. Washington was a big pond and I'd be a very small fish. Fear almost prevented me from saying yes. But by jumping in a bigger pool, I not only ended up with a great boss but a second father in Mr. Hoyer. Not being afraid to take risks has helped me and allowed me to do much, much more.

Second, I came out as a gay man. I knew in my heart that as long as I was hiding an important part of myself, I could not realize my full potential, professionally or personally. Coming out meant being honest with myself, with everyone who loved me and with people I worked with. It allowed me to achieve a level of honesty and integrity that I believe are core values in our country. It has made all the difference in my life. I would encourage young people who are debating this to be open about who you are. Honesty and integrity carry you a long way in this life and will never hurt you.

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