The MBA Secretary

Labor's Elaine Chao shares her secrets for running a tight shop.

When Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao immigrated to New York from Taiwan at the age of 8, she didn't speak a word of English. Now 53, she and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are the only remaining Cabinet members from the original Bush team. Chao's Harvard MBA and her experience heading up the Peace Corps and the United Way have led the Labor Department to successful green ratings in every area of the President's Management Agenda score card. It's the first department to accomplish that and the first to gain full certification for its Senior Executive Service pay-for-performance system, prompting Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, to suggest this fall that other agency chiefs head over to "Elaine's shop" to uncover her secrets. Chao revealed some of her management philosophy in a September interview with Government Executive. The following is an edited transcript.

On managing employees:
I think you have to trust them. You know some people are insecure. And they're reluctant sometimes, or they're a little hesitant, to hire people who may be smarter, who may be brighter, who may be more talented. As a leader, I want all those people. If I can find the best people to carry out a mission, they will inspire the people who work for them, they will help to ensure the mission is carried out and I will have been viewed as having done my job well.

So it's really important to hire good people and, once you hire good people, to allow them to manage. I'm pretty hands on, I will say that. I am constantly watching and trying to come in at the right points to offer suggestions or recommendations. So I want to empower my managers. But I also keep track of how they're doing-what outcomes have been accomplished-because this president is very outcome- or results-oriented. Sometimes when things don't go right, I'm very hands on. I go right in.
On connecting with employees outside Washington:
I was on vacation in Hawaii and I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could see some of the Department of Labor employees. We actually had a little bit of a problem because I was on personal leave and I went there, but I paid for the trip myself, so they didn't know whether I could do official business. Isn't that something? But we finally got that fixed.

Also, I went to visit San Diego, and they had never seen the secretary of Labor before. They were thrilled, and I was thrilled to see them. Whenever I go, I try to carve out some time on the road to visit the local Department of Labor offices. It was a thrill for me because I'd get a chance to thank the department staff who work so hard every day of the year, and I think it's really important to thank them for what they do.
Her new controversial requirement for union financial disclosure:
Just as we tell companies that they have a responsibility to let workers know about the financial status and condition of workers' pension funds, we ask that labor union members have a right to know how their hard-earned dollars are being used. It's part and parcel of the same concern that we have about making government more transparent, making programs more transparent for the benefit of the stakeholders. Workers should have more transparency from their companies; workers should have more transparency from their labor organizations as well.
On the federal employee disability program:
We are very concerned about reducing injuries before they occur. I think that's the key. I've been a leader in the nonprofit sector, and I've always tried to emphasize preventive care. The most important thing about workers' comp is to ensure that our workers are safe. We want workers to work in a safe and healthy environment. We want them to go home to their families happy and fulfilled and healthy.

The most important thing about workers' comp is we should be reducing risk of injuries. We have instituted a presidential initiative called SHARE, the Safety, Health and Return to Employment program. This is a program that the president is leading that is spread throughout the whole government. We want to make sure that our federal workforce, which is such a precious asset for our country, remains safe and healthy.
Whether career employees respect her:
I hope so. I hope so. But I also understand that respect is something we have to earn. We have to be worthy of it. Every day I get up and I work very hard at being a good leader, and I hope we are deserving of their respect.

With these large organizations it's very hard, you can't dictate. I work very hard at ensuring that the organization understands what the priorities are and that they take it to heart. If we just come in here and tell people what to do, we will not leave very much of a footprint. People need to feel that they are part of the solution, that they are making the difference. So much of what we try to do is to inspire and motivate people to do their best.
On the Labor Department and Hurricane Katrina:
One of the untold stories is how quickly the department sprang into action in partnership with the state governments to offer unemployment assistance and also unemployment disaster assistance. We gave out $219 million within 14 days of hurricanes hitting the ground.

We had a toll-free number that worked. We also were very proactive in going out and publicizing the federal program assistance that was available to people who were missing a paycheck. So we worked with state unemployment offices to let people know where and how to get unemployment assistance.
How being a White House Fellow shaped her:
It's a great program for young people who want to enter the federal government. This is not a program that is a permanent employment opportunity, but it gives people outside the government a great opportunity to observe the workings of the federal government at a fairly high level. For a person like myself, who was never involved in the federal government but was curious about how the federal government worked, it was a great opportunity.
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