11/17/2014 11:31 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Shaping the Environment Inside the EPA

As head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Gina McCarthy is pursuing a number of hot-button initiatives regarding climate change, clean water and other anti-pollution measures. In this interview, McCarthy, a former assistant EPA administrator and head of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, discusses her leadership philosophy and how she manages an agency of 15,000 employees. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. What drew you to public service?

A. I grew up in a family where many people worked in public service jobs. My father was a teacher for 40 years and my grandfather was in the postal service. Many people in my family were police officers, fireman and nurses. That's what large Irish families in Boston were all about, and it was a time when there were great opportunities in the public sector. That was where my family headed, and I went along.

Q. What experiences have helped shape your views on leadership?

A. Because I've worked at all levels of government, I've done a lot of learning -- much of it the hard way. I worked in my hometown, so when people came to complain to me, I knew their mother, their father and their kids. It was a personal experience, and it made me realize that most people really want to do the right thing.

It also taught me a lesson that I bring to my work today, which is that you can't pigeonhole people's intentions. You need to really invest time to listen, to welcome diverse opinions and to have faith that you'll find a solution that will allow you to continue to make progress. I did not see environmental challenges as being, "You've got the bad guys here and the good guys are here." I think that grounded me in what I would consider to be a realistic view of where we need to go environmentally.

Tom Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership. Fox is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and head of the organization's Center for Government Leadership.
This post was originally featured on The Washington Post's website.