Donna E. Shalala Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007

Excuse Donna E. Shalala if she isn’t overwhelmed by her $2 billion budget as president of the University of Miami. It’s not that Shalala doesn’t appreciate the weight of her leadership role at an educational institution, but after working under two different U.S. presidents, including eight years as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of health and human services, Shalala has overseen budgets of more than $600 billion. With that kind of experience comes the ability to see that making extensive changes requires a certain patience and the daily enthusiasm to start with smaller changes. Shalala uses that as her driving force as she pushes her 10,000 employees forward.

Smart Business spoke with Shalala about building momentum and keeping that presidential focus.

Push small changes to build momentum. I have always believed you should have two strategies when you’re looking toward the future — you should have the long-term strategy, which requires a lot of discipline, but in the short term, you have to give everyone the sense that there are changes going on right now.

And while the short-term strategy may not fit as well into the long-term strategy — it’s not on your list of what you would want to do first if you’re implementing your long-term strategy — the short-term strategy, the things that you do early on, creates the momentum and the patience needed for the long-term strategy.

So in the case of the university, you might do what I did when I arrived, and that is build patios with lots of places for students to sit. Or work to improve the communication between the students and the faculty.

You want to do things that people notice; you may extend library hours, for example. Now, that would not be first on anyone’s list of important goals, but we did some things at the beginning that created some momentum and good feelings and affected large numbers of people.

The most important thing is to be more responsive to the people you are trying to reach, and that’s a short-term strategy.

Stick with a core value. Working with [former U.S. presidents] Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton was a lesson in working with two very different types of leaders. Jimmy Carter was highly disciplined, trained as an engineer and always very deliberate.

President Clinton was more intuitive, more instinctive in his leadership. But he also loved facts and loved good analysis. They were very different personalities, but from each I learned that enthusiasm and focus makes the biggest difference in leadership.

I know that I have to keep that daily. You have things that make you feel accomplished, like graduation day when you see the students walk across the stage, but you never know if you’re really successful, so you have to stay focused and keep working every day.

Balance different personalities. You have to be a juggler; you can’t be a compulsive personality with a single vision. That means you have to keep impatience in check and work on many things.

You have to understand that there are multiple cultures in this work atmosphere. At our university, for example, law schools are different than business schools; arts and science faculty is different than medical faculty.

And you have to not be a person that has to always have everything neat and clean because of that. You have to be willing to manage conflict that comes up because of all these different groups — everybody is not always going to agree with you or with each other.

My strategy is always to keep the idea in mind of trying to constantly move the institution forward. I like to think of myself as a tugboat captain. The challenge is always to handle 12 things at once, and to do that, I have to listen very carefully to see what the different groups’ agendas are and try to work with multiple agendas at the same time to fold that into the university’s plan.

The university agenda is pretty straightforward; we want to get better. So I have to hear what they’re saying to see if their agenda is something that can be part of that plan.

Find people who can work together. I feel very strongly that you create teams. So while someone may be absolutely brilliant at what they do, if they are not a team player, I’m not much interested. How the senior people get along with each other is what I’m interested in, and that’s extremely important to me.

I normally look for people with excellent interpersonal skills, as well as being very good at what they do. I’m not very interested in the brilliant loner; that doesn’t work when you’re running large, complex institutions that require different groups to work together. So I always ask a lot of questions about how they work with others and what skills they add to a team.

I look for people that are open, that will listen and that are ready to be a part of a team. If I see that they can work in a group atmosphere, then I look at their skill experience and see if they have moved around enough to acquire enough skills in the positions where they’ve been.

Use your team to keep things moving. Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t lose your sense of humor; have patience and don’t try to solve every problem all at once. I delegate a lot after I make sure people have strategies. I try to keep it light and keep the institutions that I lead moving. Part of that is to have a lot of trust in the senior people that I work with.

You can build a consensus by listening to them and by making sure you’re creating the strategy with lots of consultation by talking it over with the leaders and the governing board of the institution. That becomes an important measure and then you take that and provide the opportunities and support systems so that everyone knows that we’re in this together.

HOW TO REACH: University of Miami, (305) 284-2211 or