January 1, 2002 - Association Management: Iran RPCV Donna Shalala shares secrets of her success

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Iran RPCV Donna Shalala shares secrets of her success

Read and comment on this excerpt from Association Management article about RPCV Donna Shalala who was the longest-serving secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in U.S. history at:

Secrets of her success *

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Secrets of her success

Jan 1, 2002 - Association Management Author(s): Eisinger, Jane

Former U.S. cabinet member Donna Shalala reflects on what she has learned about effective leadership.

LOOKING AT HER ACHIEVEMENTS, YOU may think that you're reading an excerpt from Superwoman's resume: As the longest-serving secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in U.S. history, she raised child immunization rates to their highest levels ever, in addition to making progress in welfare reform, children's health insurance, and Medicare policy reform. The Washington Post described her as "one of the most successful government managers of modern times." She served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin- Madison from 1987 to 1993, making her the first woman to head a Big Ten university.

Business Week named her one of the top five managers in higher education. She has more than three-dozen honorary degrees, and has been elected to various prestigious academies. And the list of accolades goes on.

Wonder how anyone could juggle all of these responsibilities and still manage to get eight hours of sleep a night? Donna E. Shalala has been able to do it. The current president of the University of Miami, she may be best known for her eight-year tenure as a member of former President Clinton's cabinet. In addition to serving as a university president-a role she stepped into in 2001-- Shalala keeps busy with numerous other professional commitments. She serves on three boards of directors-- Gannett Co., Inc., McLean, Virginia; UnitedHealth Group, Minneapolis; and Lennar Corporation, Miami-and is a trustee emeritus of the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees, Washington, D.C.

So what's her secret?

Setting priorities

Shalala says she manages to fulfill her day-to-day duties and still find time to serve on several boards because she is "disciplined about reading all the material they send." Her tenure as secretary of Health and Human Services and experience with academia both helped prepare her for board membership. Working with either the U.S. Congress or academicians is complicated and each requires responding to multiple constituencies, Shalala observes.

"I'm used to large, complex institutions, I'm uses to regulatory functions, and many of the boards I'm on have some interaction with government," she notes. "But mostly [my previous work experience prepared me] because I've been a large employer running a very large organization that had to meet a bottom line and running complex functions, and the boards I'm on now are very large organizations. I had been a board member before, so I've had the required management experience."

And Shalala also knows how to recognize the qualities of a successful leader. "Being a good leader requires the ability to work with all kinds of people and to listen to them," she says. Good leadership always requires teamwork, she emphasizes, and seeing yourself as a team player. "When you are the head of an agency, you're a member of a team. You are always a member of a team, whether you're part of a cabinet or whether it's a team you put together. All of the leadership skills I've used are related to team building."

Knowing your role

Shalala acknowledges that while there aren't many similarities between being a cabinet member and being a board member, her experience in the cabinet did teach her at least one valuable lesson about serving on a board. "It does make you understand that the chief executive officer has to be given a considerable amount of freedom to run the organization," she asserts. "I am absolutely against boards micromanaging the CEO."

Effective board members, Shalala continues, share some common qualities. "They understand the substance of what the organization is doing, they pay attention to the materials that are presented, and they understand the functions of the organization in some kind of broader context so that they follow the market and follow what's happening in the industry." The most important thing a board member can do, she says, is to be responsible and take that responsibility very seriously.

"Don't say too much," she advises first-time board members. And she reminds them to keep this in mind about working with the chief executive officer: "No matter what kind of organization, that person is the chief executive officer, and if it is a nonprofit, don't treat him or her any differently than you would treat a corporate officer." Finally, she adds, show up for meetings and don't micromanage.

The most valuable leadership advice that has guided Shalala throughout her career came from former New York City Mayor Robert Wagner, and ties in with her own advice to new board members. "He said, `Don't try to solve every problem all at once,"' she recalls. "`Let some of them lie shallow because they may work themselves out.'"

Committing to service

Individual board members must commit to reading the materials and showing up for meetings, but they also have a broader responsibility to ensure that the board as a whole is fulfilling its mission. A board can use various methods to measure its own effectiveness. In the private sector, it's fairly easy for a board to determine, Shalala points out. "If it's an effective organization that's dynamic, that's handling economic crisis well, it's fairly straightforward to know whether what you're doing is supportive of the company.

"One of my measures includes transparency," she continues. "The public knows what we're doing and why we're doing it, so they are interested in continuing their investments and using the products of the company.

Shalala firmly believes that the nonprofit and government sectors have a lot to offer in terms of people's perception that they are contributing to society. "I consider volunteering part of being a good citizen," she explains. Not one to shun her own advice, Shalala volunteered for the Peace Corps after college and spent two years teaching English in a remote village in Iran. The experience taught her a great deal about working with people, and she learned to speak Farci, the local language. "I think that young people ought to consider public service as part of their overall goals in life, whether it's as a volunteer or spending time in public service.

And they ought to see that as part of being a good citizen, whether they do something formally like join the military or go work for government or go into the Peace Corps, or whether they are simply good volunteers in their communities. It should be seen as part of being a professional."

Jane Eisinger is associate editor of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT. E- mail: jeisinger@asaenet.org.

Copyright American Society of Association Executives Jan 2002

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