Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Talking leadership with Social Security's Carolyn Colvin

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

Carolyn Colvin, the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration, has held numerous positions at the agency over the years and has served as head of Human Services for the District of Columbia, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services and as secretary of Maryland’s Department of Human Resources.

In an interview with Tom Fox, Colvin spoke about her motivation for public service, her leadership philosophy and her priorities for Social Security.

Q. What led you to a career in public service, and more specifically to the health and social welfare fields?

A.  I came from an impoverished background, but we never really realized we were poor. We learned very early on that it was important to help others, starting with our family and then the broader community. I believed I could impact a larger population by coming into government. Health and social services were important to me because I thought these were basic rights and basic needs that every individual should have addressed, irrespective of their social or economic status.

Q. What are some of the major management challenges at the Social Security Administration?

A.  We need to make sure that we keep information safe and secure, so we have to stay ahead of cyber threats as we increase the use of technology.

One of the other great challenges is that we are losing our institutional knowledge.  About 29 percent  of our permanent workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years. Our programs are very complex, and it takes considerable time for individuals to be fully prepared to handle these cases and claims on their own. So we are investing our time in training and mentoring newer employees.

Q. What are some of your other priorities?

A.  We have 15 months left in the Obama administration and we can accomplish some incredible things in that time period. We recently came together as an organization and identified eight critical priorities that we wanted to see accomplished that could be continued into the next administration.

We are looking at improving our online customer service, reducing our disability case backlog and educating the public about Social Security programs. We want to improve succession management. We are working on promoting employee development and engagement. Engaged employees are going to be productive employees.

We also have to transform the IT process and we need to establish a program management office that will ensure that these big projects that we are undertaking move forward and are successful. I see each of these challenges as opportunities to become more innovative, effective and efficient.

Q. What advice did you receive during your career that helped shape your leadership perspective?

A.  Former Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer gave me the best advice, and that was to put people first and to demonstrate to people that you care about them. He always talked about the importance of being a compassionate leader and the need to serve your people well and to serve the public. That helped generate my leadership style.

I believe you must demonstrate to people that you care about them as individuals and you want to help them by giving them the tools they need to do their jobs. You want to help them understand the vision and you want them to have some part in making decisions. The governor used to always recommend hiring people who are smarter than you are, listening to them, getting out of their way and letting them do the job.

Q. Was there a pivotal experience that influenced your outlook on your work?

A.  One thing that helped form my values occurred when I was working in a hospital emergency room. If you came in with a red and white card, which meant you were receiving medical assistance, you were treated somewhat differently than if you came in with a blue and white card, which showed that you had Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance.

I believe that people should be treated the same irrespective of their status. For me, it’s been very important that when individuals come for service, they should leave feeling that you treated them with dignity and respect. I always tell my team that they should keep in mind that there is a person behind every Social Security number. It’s important they feel that we care about them and that we’ve done the very best we can to help them.

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

A.  There’s a picture of my family. Family is very, very important to me. I came from a family that is very close. There is a note with the picture that says, “Have you told someone today how much you appreciate them?" That’s what helps keep me grounded.

Q. Is there something that people would be surprised to know about you?

A.  I started here at Social Security in the typing pool. And now today I am leading the organization.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Nov 18, 2015 at 6:40 AM

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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