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The Big Picture: AU President Burwell Plans to Listen and Lead

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Sylvia Mathews Burwell

Sylvia Mathews Burwell started this month as president of American University. She brings with her impressive credentials as an executive. Under President Barack Obama, Burwell was director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and most recently, she served as secretary of Health and Human Services. She's also held top philanthropic positions, working as president of the Walmart Foundation and as chief operating officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

How will she apply that leadership experience in her new position at AU? University Communications and Marketing recently sat down with President Burwell to get a window into her thinking. She discussed her insights on management, tough choices in government, and why she never stopped having those "wow" moments. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

UCM: You talk a lot about growing up in the small town of Hinton, West Virginia. Why was that so special and formative for you?

Burwell: "It was the combination of living in a small town, and the way my parents emphasized education and public service. They were first-generation Americans. My grandparents came from Greece, and all four of them were accepted here. They wanted a good life for my parents and their children. For my mother, in her generation, it wasn't always clear that a Greek young woman would go to college, but her parents supported that fully. And my mother taught in everything from a one-room school to a college, and she served on the state board of education. My father was on the local board of education, and originally was trained as a teacher before he went to optometry school. So, there was always this theme of education and learning in our household. And the sense of community is great when you're in a place that small. You know everyone. You have a sense of people's lives, of both their challenges and their joys. And I think that's contributed to how I think about my time in government, or my time in anything that I've done."

UCM: Did you always have a goal of working in Washington?

Burwell: "I think it would probably be fair to say yes. In the summer after my second year of college, I worked here in Washington, D.C. and was a Lyndon Baines Johnson intern for Congressman Nick Rahall. So, yes, it was something that I was excited about and wanted to do. And then I also had a chance during my years in college to work in the Massachusetts State House and for Governor Michael Dukakis."

From left: Taylor Dumpson, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Fanta Aw, and Mariette Bahati.

From left: Taylor Dumpson, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Fanta Aw, and Mariette Bahati.

UCM: When you did come to Washington full time, did you have a 'Wow, I've made it!' kind of moment?

Burwell: "I think those 'wow' moments continued every day. The honor of being able to serve and serve at the highest levels of government has been something that I think doesn't stop wowing. I was so fortunate at 27 to be in the West Wing and working there. I actually still have pictures on my phone of the first day when I went back to work at OMB. I took a picture of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It's incredible-the history of our nation, what you're being entrusted with, and being able to serve."

UCM: You worked for two presidents. Did they ever share any meaningful advice with you that you use to this day? Or, what did you learn just from watching the way they operate?

Burwell: "With President Clinton, I learned the importance of connecting the work to real people. That was just a consistent theme, and something that he did so incredibly well. When we finished the first budget, there were hours and hours of meetings around the Roosevelt Room table. We finished the budget, and President Clinton turns to me and says, 'What are the people back in Hinton going to think of what we just did?' It's just so reflective of how he thought about the work we were doing, and keeping it always so connected to those we serve. And that's an important lesson in whatever work you're doing. President Obama really is quite good at getting to the core and seminal issues. Even with how difficult it was, he understood the importance of health care. His ability to be at 30,000 feet on any issue is just terrific. He always kept thinking about the big picture and the long term."

UCM: Of the leadership lessons that you've learned in government, are there certain principles that you can apply to leading a university?

Burwell: "From what I've learned in government and in the private sector, there are three things that I emphasize. One is focusing on impact. And by impact, I mean the outcome. Often you end up focusing on outputs-the interim thing-versus what it is that you're trying to actually measure to be successful. Number two, the importance of prioritization. That, I think, is very important for moving forward in measured ways. And the third thing is the importance of relationships, both inside and outside your organization. Relationships within the organization are extremely important to make sure that you're bringing out the best in people. In terms of that leadership overlay, I believe that you need to emphasize those things in a way that has the engagement, energy, and passion that you expect of others."

Sylvia Mathews Burwell meets with AU faculty, staff, and students on her first day at AU.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell meets with AU faculty, staff, and students on her first day at AU. 

UCM: How would you approach working with students and a younger generation?

Burwell: "I am excited about that. They will tell you Twitter is old school, so I'm already behind the curve because I'm doing Twitter. But at least we are in the space of using that tool as a means of communicating. I want to hear from the students. I want to understand and engage. You probably saw my running on campus tweet? Part of that is seeing them, hearing them, figuring out what they are thinking."

UCM: What kind of advice would you give this year's graduating class at AU?

Burwell: "I tell a story about how when I was in my twenties and working for McKinsey in New York, I went to a dinner party and met a friend's father who ran construction around the world. He asked me to run a construction company in the Bahamas. And I thought this was the greatest idea ever! Giving me responsibility, thinking I could run something. Sun, beach-it just all sounded really quite good. I called a mentor of mine, and he didn't do what many would do, which would be to say, 'That is crazy!' Instead, he said, 'As you think about your career, think about three things: Number one, are you learning? Number two, are you contributing? And number three, are you having fun? Put together 40 years of that, and you'll have had a great career.'"

UCM: How do you approach hiring? Do you look for people who maybe share your mindset and approach to management? Or do you try to find people with different ideas?

Burwell: "Diversity is very important. People need to share certain values at organizations, I believe. But diversity of thinking and diversity of style make an organization healthy. With values, we need to be consistent because that defines the institution. But I actually believe it's good to have people who have perhaps different styles than I do."

UCM: What's the hardest decision you've ever had to make in public life?

Burwell: "Oh, there are many. The budget has limited money, and you'd have the question of how does one tradeoff a new munition-when we're in the middle of a conflict-with early Head Start. There were many hard decisions where the tradeoffs are not simple or easy, but you need to make them. That's why you're in the job that you're in. How to weigh investment in the vaccine for Ebola versus current treatment? There are all kinds of issues on a day-to-day basis that, as with most things in life, there are pros and cons. I would just say the decision-making was consistently challenging."