This USDA administrator’s leadership style?: ‘Good or bad, I’m authentic’

Chavonda Jacobs-Young has been the administrator of USDA's Agricultural Research Service since 2014. Tom Fox discussed the importance of communicating with the workforce, her leadership approach and her athletic accomplishments of many years ago.

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Chavonda Jacobs-Young has been the administrator of USDA's Agricultural Research Service since 2014. She manages a $1.2 billion budget and 8,000 employees at 90 locations who work on issues of nutrition and food safety, animal production and protection, sustainable agricultural and crop production and protection. In an interview with Tom Fox, Jacobs-Young discussed the importance of communicating with the workforce, her leadership approach and her athletic accomplishments of many years ago. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of your major challenges and goals at the Agricultural Research Service?

As scientists working in many areas of agriculture, we have the responsibility to make sure that we are focusing on the highest priority issues. The main issue is how do we continue to feed a growing population while remaining great stewards of the environment and promoting practical use of our natural resources? It’s a huge challenge and one that our scientists are working every day to meet.

How do you communicate effectively and engage a workforce that is so dispersed?

At the start of my administration, I spent a lot of time visiting locations and listening and trying to learn from our team members. I wanted to know the issues that were important to them, what things could make their jobs better and improve their work-life balance. We have a website called, “Your Two Cents” where employees can express their concerns, offer comments, ask questions and make suggestions for improvements and changes. And we respond to the comments and suggestions of our employees. We also hold what we call “inform and engage” agency-wide webinar sessions on many high priority topics and then make them available by a recording for people who are unable to join them live.

How do you assess employee morale?

Our goal is to be accessible, to communicate and to be transparent. People are more comfortable when they know what we know, and if it’s not terribly good news, to share that information. This may be a challenge for us, but we will work our way through it as we have done in the past.

What led you into the field of agriculture science and what motivated you to come work for the federal government?

I have Ph.D. in a field called wood and paper science. Many people have no idea what that means. And I’m the first African American Ph.D. in the country in this area that most have never heard of, by the way. I was working as an assistant college professor when I was approached about joining the government in 2002. I saw it as an opportunity to learn about federal service and join the team of amazing federal scientists helping to meet our nation’s largest agricultural research goals.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Good or bad, I’m authentic. I surround myself with very smart people who will challenge me. That’s how we get to the best decisions. It’s also important to me to hire great people and let them do their jobs.

Have you made any leadership or management mistakes that turned into valuable lessons?

I have had a lot of leadership training, but one of the areas that has been key for me, and one of the areas I don’t think we train leaders for sufficiently, is the communications aspect, especially in a time of crisis. It’s easy to talk about all of the amazing things that we do, but more difficult to know how to respond when there’s something that doesn’t go as planned.

Is there anything you keep on your desk for sentimental reasons?

I have a stuffed toy eagle on my desk given to me by the U.S. National Arboretum, which is part of the Agriculture Research Service. Two years ago for the first time since 1947, two eagles built their nests at the National Arboretum. Last year, we set up cameras and were able to see the eagles return to prepare their nest, to lay their eggs and then we watched the eaglets as they grew and flew away. They’re there again and can be seen on our Washington, D.C. Bald Eagle Nest Cam. It’s a feel good, positive story, so I keep this toy eagle on my desk to remind me how wonderful nature is.

What would people be surprised to know about you? Do you have any hidden talents?

Thirty years ago, almost a lifetime ago, I was a three-time ACC high-jump champion at NC State University.

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