Federal Coach

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

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Talking leadership with former USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden

Krysta Harden, a self-described Georgia farm girl, recently left the U.S. Department of Agriculture where she served in various capacities during the past seven years, including as deputy secretary. In an interview with Fox, Harden spoke about how life on the farm prepared her for life at the USDA, her personal successes and challenges, and her approach to managing employees.

You come from three generations of Georgia farmers and were raised on a farm. How did your upbringing inform your work at USDA?

I started training for this job when I was a child. My background certainly prepared me for dealing with our programs and policies and the culture of agriculture. It also prepared me for the hard work that’s required to be in federal service and for the discipline that’s needed. I give great credit to my parents, who were farmers and who always worked very hard and instilled in me and my sister a strong work ethic and an understanding that everyone should be treated fairly.

What was your major interest on the farm?

We had row crops and livestock. I was interested in the horses and the cows. I was a 4H-er. We showed horses and steers.

What would you describe as your major accomplishments at USDA?

Secretary Tom Vilsack was determined to create a culture of inclusion and fairness, not only for all employees, but for stakeholders as well, and I’m excited and honored to have been a part of that. I think there is a whole different attitude about our agency—and within the agency. The secretary also asked me to lead the implementation of the 2014 farm bill, which created many reforms and changes, and that has been a major sense of satisfaction.

What was your biggest management challenge?

We have almost 100,000 employees, including about 11,000 in the Washington metropolitan area. The rest are around the country and around the world. Communicating with everyone and having an open, collaborative process is very difficult. Over the course of my time here, dealing with the very tight budget – budget cuts and uncertainties – was also difficult. It is hard for employees when the government is shut down. That is really tough for morale.

How would you describe your leadership style or philosophy?

I try to surround myself with really smart and talented people and not be intimidated by them, but challenge them to do their jobs and trust them. I’m not a micromanager. The most fun for me as a manager is to pull people from different backgrounds with different strengths and talents, help them learn to rely on each other and create an atmosphere of collaboration. When somebody messes up, we all run laps. We all help each other. It’s not each person. It really has to be a good team.

Are there other aspects to your management approach?

As a manager, the employees need to know you have their back. If something goes wrong, you’re not just going to point your finger and say “Hey, you messed up.” You must say, “We’re going to fix it, we’re going do better next time.” As a manager, you need to be loyal to your employees if you want them to be loyal to you. Care about them, have their backs, listen to them and don’t let them slip through the cracks. If there is somebody who’s having an issue, deal with it straightforwardly.

Thinking about your experience over the years, was there a management mistake that taught you an important lesson?

There were times when I misjudged the seriousness of a problem and did not deal with it as quickly as I should have and it escalated. These experiences helped me know that if there’s smoke, there’s a fire; and I need to deal with it directly. It’s not going to go away, it’s not going to fix itself. I think that has made me a better manager.

Also, early on in my career I was trying to prove that I was a strong manager, especially because I am a woman and I was younger. A couple times I made snap judgments that I wish I had thought through more carefully. Now that I am older and have more experience, I think I make more careful, deliberate decisions. I listen better.

What has occupied your time outside of work?

I love baseball. I love sports. I used to leave my office and often go directly to the Nationals stadium. I go to spring training. I listen to baseball every night on my headset when I walk for exercise.

What might people in the workplace say about you?

People know my love of agriculture. That is something people get very quickly. They know my love of home and the land. I’m still very tied to it. I’m very much a Southerner. I’ve been in town since 1981 and I have never ever forgotten where I’m from and why I’m here.

Did you have anything on your desk at USDA that had personal significance?

I had a little Georgia bulldog since I went to the University of Georgia and never will forget that. I had pictures of my family, including my husband. And I had a brass peanut since my daddy’s a peanut farmer.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Mar 21, 2016 at 12:55 PM

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
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