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Lead With Questions, Find A Watering Hole…

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Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm may have to do some of the work herself that normally would fall to staff, according to former Secretary Steven Chu, during what are sure to be slow first days in office.

Granholm was nominated Dec. 17 but not confirmed until Feb. 27. Even with an earlier start Chu said his first days at DOE were difficult.

“I had been confirmed a week before the inauguration—which was good!” Chu said, “and so I was able to start the very next day, but some of the other confirmations take a while, and so you’re really there sort of trying to maintain the ship in a very interesting way.”

Until Chu’s deputy secretaries and undersecretaries were confirmed, and until the department’s 140 political appointees were seated, he was doing things himself like making phone calls to check the references of employees at ARPA-E, then a newly formed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy.

Acting appointees are of limited help, he said in a conversation with Chris Field, director of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “Actings don’t have nearly the influence and power. The career people don’t really take them seriously, and so you’ve got to be very careful about actings.”

Chu offered insights from his experience at Energy.

1 Appoint A Special Advisor

Chu navigated around the gaps in his staff by appointing a special advisor, Matt Rogers—who had been a senior partner at McKinsey—because special advisors don’t require Senate confirmation. Rogers oversaw implementation of Energy’s share of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package. Granholm may soon be tasked with implementing a stimulus package of her own.

2 Dump The Consultants

Chu was able to save money and inspire employees, he said, by discharging K Street consultants that had been hired for some of the department’s work. “I wanted the people in the department to actually do the work, not to hire some consultant, and that was actually a very uplifting thing for many of the members of the department.”

3 Get Out Of The Way

Chu aspired to change the hierarchical culture at DOE. He hired prominent academics and members of the National Academies, and he fostered an academic atmosphere—in which disagreement and debate is invited regardless of rank. “I said my job is mostly bringing in good people, don’t second-guess them, and block and tackle for them, which means literally keep the bureaucracy from stopping or slowing them down, and let them spread their wings.”

4 Lead With Questions

How does a leader still lead after getting out of the way? With questions, said Chu: “The way you actually assert some influence is, we would ask questions, and the type of questions were deep penetrating questions that kept everybody honest.”

5 Find A Watering Hole

Chu attributed this tip to Arun Majumdar, the Stanford engineering professor who was Chu’s choice to serve as the first director of ARPA-E. Like Chu, Majumdar aspired to create an academic culture in which disagreement was invited. Such a culture requires lubricant: “Arun did something very important,” Chu said. “Friday late afternoons they all went to a favorite watering hole and became all good friends, so you can have honest discussions without it getting personal.”

President Biden’s appointments reflect a commitment to science, Chu said. Biden elevated the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to the cabinet level, a move Chu had advocated. He then nominated Eric Lander to that post, the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and an expert on the human genome.

Chu is a professor of physics and molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University and the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He won the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics and is credited by President Obama with designing on a napkin the technology that capped the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Even with a president committed to science, said Chu, Granholm will face additional challenges because of damage done by Donald Trump.

“A lot of the long-term career people were driven out through terrible means,” Chu said. “You know, the senior career people, you can’t fire them, but you can transfer them to different locations or very undesirable jobs, and then they quit.

“These are people who—as Republicans, Democrats, different administrations have different philosophies—they could weather the storm, but they couldn’t weather this one.”

Watch Steven Chu’s conversation with Chris Field at Stanford:

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