An Interview with Kay Cole James, Former Director of U.S. Office of Personnel Management

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Kay Cole James was Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management when the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks occurred. In the wake of those attacks, she oversaw the reorganization of agencies and endured misplaced criticism for allegedly hiring alumni from Regent University, where she had been Dean. James is now culling from these and other personal and professional experiences to shape a new generation of leaders through her work at the nonprofit Gloucester Institute. James talked to about what it takes to be a success, both at work and at home.

Ms. James, reading over what you accomplished as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I'm wondering, how did you develop the skills and confidence necessary for those kinds of challenges?

That's a tough question. I will answer it by saying that it is amazing to me, as I look back over my life and see the opportunities that I've been given, how the skills and relationships that I developed early on were called into play later in life. What I take away from this is that life is, indeed, a journey. The experiences we have along the way—while they seem unrelated in many ways—they’re all preparatory. When I was learning how to juggle and multitask in my early life, I didn’t realize that multitasking would become an essential skill when I was managing 3,000 employees and overseeing the health care, benefits, and training of the largest workforce on the planet. But it was a skill that I used every day in that complex and challenging environment.

What other skills were helpful to you as a young person in becoming successful?

I would say that the skill I called on most in challenging jobs was the ability to analyze information and solve problems. The ability to look at a complex set of data points and figure out how to use that information was a skill that I developed over many years in different work environments.

Did you have an innate gifting as well? Or, are these skills that others can develop?

I sincerely believe that the skills that become important later in life can be developed, but they are developed through experience, not necessarily through taking a course or reading a book. I don't think we should ever undervalue the experiences we have and what we can learn from those experiences, because life lessons can be translated into wisdom for other situations.

I was on a panel once, and an audience member was listening to the experiences that were being shared from the stage about how leaders solve problems and how we manage and motivate people. This person said, "Oh, did you read . . . ?" and started naming off various books on mentoring, on managing, and on motivating people. Quite frankly, I had heard of all of them. I had actually skimmed the indexes of a few of them and maybe read one. Someone else from the audience noted that each of the panelists had been examples in somebody else's book. My point is that we lived it, and then others captured what we did and wrote it down. And, while it’s possible to read and glean from other people's experiences, I believe you learn through failure and success; you learn through trial and error and through mentoring. All of those things have come into play in my career.

As someone who has over many years determined what's valuable in an employee, what would you advise people on how to strengthen their position in a difficult job market?

That's a very interesting question, because my answer is counterintuitive. One of the unique things about the kinds of jobs that I've had is that I've always been brought in to solve a problem. The first thing I do in that situation is put together a team. As Secretary of Health, for example, I had to hire twenty-two agency heads. Eventually, I came to realize that early on I had been looking for the wrong things. Now, I look for people who love eating problems for breakfast. People who walk into an office and think, “I know it's going to be a great day because I’ve got something I can fix.”

Is this solely because of the positions you’ve held, or would this be the case in any kind of hiring situation?

I've had the opportunity to operate in every sector of America's economy (nonprofit, for profit and academia) and the skill sets that are required to succeed in all of those sectors are the same. I also look for people who enjoy making decisions, because in many of the circumstances where I've had to operate, I’ve seen that some people are paralyzed at the thought of making a multimillion dollar decision. They freeze and become fearful. So, I look for people who love to solve problems, people who love making decisions, and people who have a decision-making process that is thorough and fast, because sometimes decisions have to be made quickly. I also look for people who have a great sense of humor and are good cultural fits. There are a lot of very talented people out there who have all the right skills, but I don't know if I'd want to spend eight to ten hours a day with them.

You’re talking about having good chemistry?

It's something you determine during the interview process and as you spend time with a candidate. Very often, people overlook this personal element. When they're thinking about switching jobs or going into a new company and they sit down in an interview, they spend too much time trying to convince me how wonderful they are and what they can do. By the time they’ve gotten to me, though, someone has already determined that they're qualified. I’m just trying to figure out if they’re a good fit in the organization and if they share the same values and the same level of work intensity.

So, as people are looking at potential employers, I would advise them to not only think about what skill sets they have, but about where they will culturally be a good fit, because if the skill sets aren't exact matches, but there is a good cultural fit, they can develop the skills they lack.

That's a great point. You said the same skill set is required to succeed in most environments. Are there other skills that you would add to your list?

At the top level, I’m looking for people who are natural leaders, people who have a sense of humor, people who have a strong work ethic, people who know how to analyze data and solve problems. If I find a person like that, I can plop them down almost anywhere and they will succeed.

Another skill set that one wouldn’t think needs mentioning, but I'm increasingly finding that I have to mention is this: Potential employees must have great oral and written communication skills. I’m amazed at the number of people I come in contact with at lower and mid-levels in organizations who can't write a great letter, who can't defend a position in a memo, who can't stand up in a board room and make a presentation to management. They might have the best idea in the world, but if they can't articulate it, it doesn't matter.

Have you noticed a similar breakdown in character and ethics in the course of your career, or is it that we just read more about these issues?

I think we read more about them. People in a corporate or government environment who cut corners or make ethical compromises generally don't last long. They get sorted out fairly quickly. Also, I have been blessed to work in cultural environments where character, morality, and integrity matter. I've worked for principals (whether it’s been a governor, a president or a CEO) whose character and integrity I’ve respected tremendously. And if I no longer respected a principal’s character or integrity, then I moved on. Perhaps I've never seen the other side because of this.

People don't always know until they get into a situation that there are integrity or character issues.

Something I used to teach my Government students is how to resign graciously.

And, how does one do that?

[Laughing] First, you should always acknowledge and thank your employer for the opportunity to have served them and to have worked with them. Second, you should acknowledge all that you've been able to accomplish together. Wish them well and then make your exit. Never, ever blame. I don't have any tolerance or patience for people who do "kiss and tell" books. I want anyone who takes me into their corporate culture, into their administration, to know that they have my absolute loyalty. If in fact there's ever a disagreement, only my principal and I will know that. When I leave, whatever has happened remains between us. We don't see enough of that in corporate and government environments.

In the age of the Internet, people are not always wise in what they're putting out there. From reading various articles about job hunting, I’ve learned to never write about coworkers.

Oh, absolutely. And, you know what? I Facebook. I Twitter. I’m on LinkedIn and Connected. I do all these things. If I see that you’ve publicly demeaned your previous boss, I assume there's a good chance that if it doesn't work out with me, you'll do the same thing.

What about when somebody is a whistle blower, as was the case with Enron?

Whistle blowing is when someone is uncovering corruption, waste, fraud, and abuse. That's a different category. I think those people are to be esteemed for taking the risk to do the right thing. If more people did that, we would have fewer Enrons and fewer opportunities for people to lose their entire live savings. If someone working in the Madoff organization had stepped forward, thousands of people may have kept their retirement incomes.

Since we’re talking about the Internet, I want to ask you about a Wikipedia article that came up in a Google search of your name. It said that, as director of OPM, you hired unqualified people from Regent University, where previously you had been Dean of the Robertson School of Government.

Well, see, there you go, getting your information from Wikipedia. [Laughing]

Fair enough, but my question isn’t about the actual content. It’s about dealing with public criticism.

Then it’s a perfect example. The situation started with a blog post that said because I had worked at Regent and was now at OPM, I had hired these people. The reality is I didn't do any of it.

How did you handle the situation?

What was interesting is that the inaccuracy went from a blog to a newspaper article, and then to another newspaper article, and finally to Wikipedia. There was an Inspector General's investigation, which I was happy about because there was no basis to the accusation. But, it's out there and will forever be.

In answer to your question, initially I thought about going into Wikipedia and changing it. But, at a certain point, particularly as someone in the public eye, I had to say, "Lord, I can't protect myself." The main thing I have in my favor is truth. I find my peace in truth and I trust that the people who need to know the truth, by the grace of God, will. And then, I let it go.

It’s fascinating though, isn’t it? The anatomy of how something gets out there like that?

Yes, it is. Now, I’d like to ask you about something you said in an interview with UPI in 2002 about implementing best practices and connecting wage increases to merit when you were OPM director. You said those changes didn't get enough press. Are they still in effect?

A former career employee took me out to coffee several months ago to thank me for being fearless and tireless in trying to come up against a system that fundamentally doesn't like change. This is a classic example. As a change agent, you do as much as you can for as long as you can, and when you leave, you have to just close your eyes and walk away. You thank God for the opportunity you had to serve and pray that some of the good will last.

Do you know if it has?

If I had to guess, I would say, probably 30 percent of the changes we made lasted. I would also say that there's less difference than one might think in what the current OPM director's agenda might be and what mine might be. Everybody who comes in wants to fix the hiring process. Everybody who comes in wants to fix how federal employees are paid. And so, we each chip away at it. We do what we can and hope that we've laid the groundwork, and that the person that comes behind us can do a little more.

Is there a lesson here that’s applicable to all kinds of endeavors that people enter into idealistically, about not becoming disillusioned with life in general?

Oh, I think that's absolutely true. Whatever task you take on, whether you're leading a corporation, leading a federal agency, being a cabinet secretary or being a governor—everyone comes in with their idea of what they would like to accomplish. And, trying to impose that on a very rigid culture or system can sometimes be discouraging. I think you have to maintain a healthy sense of optimism and of knowing your own place in the continuum.

I don’t mean to get too ethereal with this, but there were people who came before you and there are people who are going to come after you. You do what you can during your tenure knowing that there will be someone who is younger, smarter, and more articulate who might come in right behind you and accomplish more than you ever could have.

And so, we need a healthy dose of humility.

A healthy dose of humility.

Can you tell our readers how your faith has impacted your work life? How do you glorify God in your work?

By being excellent at what I do. I've been very outspoken about my faith. People know who I am. I try not to wear it on my cuff, but I don't hide it under a bushel either. The last thing I want to do is to demean the name of Christ by not being excellent at what I do.

The first question I ask before every job or task is: what does excellence look like? Because, I think God requires no less. So, for example, as Secretary of Health in Virginia, I wanted to know what an excellent Secretary of Health looked like because that's what I wanted to be. If I'm going to serve on the board of a major financial institution, I want to know what an excellent board member looks like, because that's what I want to be. What has probably influenced me more than anything else in this regard is the thought that I would never want anybody to say, "Christians are slackers who don't do good work."

Because many of the jobs that I have had have been leadership positions, I also think it's important to lead with compassion and to be balanced. Everyone knows that family is more important to me than any job I've ever had or ever will have. I could be involved in Health and Human Services or youth programs and save every child in America, but if I lost my own, I would have failed in the primary mission for my life. My marriage is more important to me than any job.

For someone with as demanding a career as you have had, I imagine that takes incredible discipline.

Oh, my word, yes. Very often, we don't get it right and we have to fix it. We are very intentional about it. We've been married now for thirty-three years. There's not a person on the planet I would rather be married to. Having said that, we both have extremely strong personalities and marriage has not been easy for us. When I say it takes work, I mean it.

I look at some of the adulteries that are reported in the news and they always seem to start out with someone saying, “We were good friends and then the trajectory set in.” The next thing you know, this person is way out there someplace where he or she had no business being. Charles and I have always set strict guidelines.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about your work at the Gloucester Institute.

Oh, the Gloucester Institute. It is the crown jewel of my entire career, where all the pieces come together. Where I have the opportunity to take everything that I have learned and gleaned and can pour that into the next generation.

We are the stewards of one of the most historic sites in America at the Gloucester Institute, which is located at Holly Knoll, the retirement home of the late Dr. Robert Russa Moton. It's been called the "Cradle of Civil Rights Movement." I went there as a little girl and remembered the beauty and historic significance of the place. It's where Martin Luther King retreated to when he needed to pull away from the crowds. It's where the Greensboro Four went to plot the strategy for the integration of the lunch counters in the South and where the United Negro College Fund was founded. The list goes on and on.

Now, it’s where we take emerging leaders for citizenship training and where we hold seminars. It seemed to me a natural place to gather up young individuals who in fifteen to twenty years will be the next CEOs, United States Senators, and presidents of our country. We begin to infuse them with ideas and people and events that are outside of their normal life. So, it's a great mission and a great place to accomplish it. And, anyone who wants to support our work can send a check. [Laughing]

It sounds like a great work and a great place to do it. Well, I thank you so much, Ms. James, for sharing your wisdom and experience with our readers.

Oh, thank you.

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