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Curiosity, Competence, and Compassion

An Interview with California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley | CHHS Agencydianadooley
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Q: What are the key attributes of leadership?

A: Fundamentally, three things: curiosity, competence, and compassion.

A good leader has to be curious. If you aren't curious, you aren't engaging, you aren't encouraging people.
Competence leads to credibility. People look to you as a leader to know about their world, their organization, the details of their work. But it's your job to set big objectives in ways that translate into small details. Sometimes you have to translate for them. So there has to be a measure of subject matter competence to be a leader.

Compassion is important to me because it's another way of saying empathy. Compassion means putting on the shoes of other people: workers, colleagues, the people that we're serving. We have many programs in the Health and Human Services. The beneficiaries need nutrition assistance, temporary assistance because they're out of a job, health assistance, or community development work. They are the consumers and beneficiaries of our work, at the heart of what we do. If we didn't have compassion, it would be hard to connect the detailed, data-driven, sometimes ministerial functions to the lives of the beneficiaries.

Q: How do you handle the crunch caused by furloughs and the financial crisis?

A: When I came in two years ago, the system had already been stressed for years. We couldn't achieve the same objectives with fewer resources.

We first had to prove we were using all the resources well and wisely. We had to address whatever waste, fraud, and abuse there was.

Then we made reductions. These affected people's lives in very consequential ways. I think it's disrespectful to suggest otherwise.

I asked at every level: What could you set aside? What can't be done with the reduced resources?
To everybody who tells me how someone else could change what they were doing I say, "What can you change?" I don't want you to tell me that you're doing everything perfectly and someone else needs to change. If someone else changes, yes, it's an improvement. But every one of us can improve by doing something differently. I want to know what that is.

Q: How do you empower your team to make difficult decisions?

A: I worked very hard in the first six months to recruit the finest talent who had worked with the Health and Human Services Agency from the other side of the table. Many took reductions in pay and now work harder than before. They all have the components of curiosity, competence, and compassion.

We don't run programs or set policy at the agency. We have leaders in every one of the departments who understand and run the programs. They come to me when they need support, advice, guidance, or an interface with the broader public and legislature.

As an Agency Secretary, I articulate the vision for how we're going to achieve the Governor's goals. Sometimes I'm the adhesive and sometimes I'm the lubricant. I connect the abilities of the people who know more than I do about the programs to the Governor's goals.

Q: You've worked in both public and private sector jobs. How do the private and public sector compare in terms of strategy-setting?

A: In the private sector, a board of directors hires the CEO and they run the company. You say we want to achieve these goals. We want to increase market share, or we want to find a service that isn't otherwise provided. Then you have all of your horses pulling in the same direction.

Government is much more complex in setting its strategic agenda. The process for determining strategic goals is very diffused. And leadership changes more often. You have executive leadership that changes every four years. You have legislative leadership that changes every two years. The bureaucracy is slow to change because the people doing the work know that there will be these kinds of changes.

Governor Brown famously said in his first two terms of office that it takes about one term to begin to get people to speak the language of the new Governor and know where they're going and what they want to do. Then it takes another term to begin to move there. Then there's a new administration. And often it's an administration with a very different perspective and set of goals.

Q: Given the strategic challenges faced by government, what motivated you to return to public service?

A: I think that there are some things that we can only do together: educating our children, taking care of our most vulnerable, building our roads, protecting our environment. Those are things that make our democracy different than any other society in the history of the planet.

It does require us to honor and invest in and be committed to the people who do the people's business. I came back at the end of my career to where I started in order to serve as an advocate and champion of the people who do the people's business.

This interview with California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley was conducted on January 29, 2013 and has been edited and condensed.


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