12/12/2014 11:06 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Talking Leadership With Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker

As secretary of the Department of Commerce, Penny Pritzker has the job of promoting American businesses' economic development and overseeing a wide range of agencies, from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the International Trade Administration to the Census Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Pritzker, who founded and ran five different businesses in real estate, hospitality, senior living and financial services, spoke about her management and leadership philosophy with me, a guest writer for On Leadership. I am the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and head of the organization's Center for Government Leadership. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. After years in the private sector, what were some surprises about running the Department of Commerce?

A. The challenge I faced early on was not having a team in place and having to hire a lot of people quickly. When I came in, about 15 of my 22 Senate-confirmed positions were vacant or about to become vacant, and 80 percent of the leadership jobs in the Office of the Secretary were vacant.

Q. What is your leadership philosophy?

A. I believe the biggest priority in any leader's job is to put together a team and really empower the team. Another thing I've been trying to do is provide a culture where people are proud to work, feel appreciated and understand the mission.

Q. Recent events like the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs highlight how difficult it can be for executives to stay in contact with employees on the front lines. What are you doing to make sure you get unfiltered information about organizational problems?

A. You have to celebrate people who bring problems forward. I have an operating committee meeting every week with senior leadership where we just talk about the problems. Nobody gets blamed, nobody gets in trouble. It's all about revealing problems and coming up with solutions. I also try to be the best listener that I can be. There are so many things tugging at my time, so focusing on listening is something that is a challenge every day.

I have said to my closest advisers, "Your job is not to tell me about something you're concerned with, it's to get in my face and make sure I've heard you. You're not off the hook by just telling me something in passing in the hallway." So there must be a collective ownership of the challenges we face. I'm not pretending we've got it all right. I'm just trying to create an environment where people feel comfortable to say that something doesn't work.

This post was originally featured on The Washington Post's website.