Make It

Tips for success from one of the most powerful women in government

Penny Pritzker
David A. Grogan | CNBC
Penny Pritzker

Since the election, all eyes have been on Donald Trump's Cabinet selections as he prepares to be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. A few of his choices, including Steven Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross and Ben Carson, have been viewed skeptically by critics, who cite — among other things — a lack of government experience as disqualifying them for the job.

While time will tell whether they are effective Cabinet members, they are certainly not the first appointees with no government experience — and some of those leaders have been very effective. My recent sit-down with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker leads me to believe that some aspects of public leadership aren't so different from the private sector.

Secretary Pritzker held no government experience prior to becoming President Obama's Secretary of Commerce, but she certainly knew how to run businesses. In her 27 years of private sector experience, Secretary Pritzker started five companies, led dozens of businesses and served on the boards of big corporations like Hyatt Hotels, LaSalle National Bank and the William Wrigley Company. When she stepped up to serve her country, Secretary Pritzker's arena changed from private to public, but her objectives and challenges as a leader remained the same. She shared three key insights that, public or private, are fundamental to effective leadership:

1. You're only as good as your team

"Whether in business or in government, you're only as good as the team you put around you," says Secretary Pritzker. This theme has come up time and again with other leaders I've interviewed. If your team doesn't have the right diversity in backgrounds and opinion — and the right alchemy when combined — your ability to move the needle on your goals is basically nonexistent. But the right mix isn't all; you're also only as good as what your team can accomplish. I lit up when Secretary Pritzker mentioned her leadership philosophy to invert the traditional pyramid (also known as servant leadership); it's mine, too. The traditional leadership pyramid is that you rise to power and the sit atop the power pyramid. The idea of servant leader is that you are servant first, share power and work on developing strong leaders on your team.

Pritzker asks, "Where can you use me as Secretary or us as the leadership team to help folks who run the front line of execution be successful?" Your job as a leader — elected, appointed or hired — is to assemble a great team, then support them to get the job done.

2. Numbers speak louder than words

We're wrapping up our 2017 planning meetings at Zillow Group, so everyone has budgets on the mind. At the company level, our budgets reflect our priorities for the coming year. Each department submits their proposals; we collate their submissions at the executive level and determine whether they reflect our strategic priorities. We adjust, we decide, and we move forward.

According to Secretary Pritzker, this process is a little more complicated in the public sector. "In the private sector as CEO, you own the budget. It's an expression of what you want to get done," she says. "In government, Congress owns your budget, and it's an expression of what they think is important." The process is the same — two sides setting out their priorities — but the decision-making is flipped. Secretary Pritzker is the "department" in my example, and Congress is the "executive team," one elected by and answering to the people, and in recent years, full of competing agendas. Secretary Pritzker noted the amount of collaboration required to accomplish your strategic objectives, as the decision sits with them as a body, not you as a leader.

3. You have to learn the language

When I asked Secretary Pritzker what she wishes she'd known when taking office, she lamented the alphabet soup of Washington. "When I arrived, I walked into a room of 50 people — literally my first day — and they started spewing at me these acronyms: PTO, NOAA, NIST, BIS, ESA, ITA… [it] made me crazy," she laughs.

Secretary Pritzker didn't come in with the knowledge of "the soup" — but does that mean she was unqualified? No. She just had to learn, and quickly — what she describes as her vertical learning curve. I know that feeling. Ten years ago when we started Zillow, I knew nothing about real estate. I was a tech executive with no real estate background. I had to learn the alphabet soup of the real estate industry (every industry has their own flavor). But my lack of knowledge didn't translate to lack of leadership. If you have the transferable experience and skill set, learning the language is just part of the transition.

Leadership in the public sector is tough. You're in the spotlight; you're answering to a population that, despite your best efforts, you can't keep entirely happy, and your fate isn't always determined by your performance. I am so grateful to the individuals like Secretary Pritzker who choose to take on this challenge.

Commentary by Spencer Rascoff, chief executive officer of Zillow Group, which houses a portfolio of real-estate sites, including Zillow and Trulia. He is also the co-author of "Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate." Follow him on Twitter @spencerrascoff.

You can listen or read the full episode of Rascoff's "Office Hours" podcast with Secretary Pritzker here.

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