Lisa P. Jackson – Head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Lisa Jackson

The Real Mother Nature

By Caroline Cox

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s head Lisa P. Jackson, 49, has some impressive connections. As the first African American to hold the post of the EPA’s Administrator, she was invited to her current position through a personal invitation from President Obama in 2008.

The New Orleans native, wife and mother of two began at an entry-level position at the EPA and worked her way up over the course of 16 years, cultivating a deep passion for both environmental issues and passing laws to make sure these issues don’t go unnoticed. She now manages heads up a staff of more than 17,000 employees from her office in D.C.

Here, Jackson talks to PINK about blazing trails, what drives her to succeed and where she got her passion for the environment.

PINK: What’s your success secret?

Lisa Jackson: I believe in the importance of listening. Listening is an underrated and under-practiced value. Too often, people are trying to get their point of view across, but they’re not really listening. Progress is made when you can accommodate both or multiple viewpoints. I pride myself on that and I hope the team around me cultivates their listening skills as well.

PINK: What led to your passion for environmental issues?

LJ: I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. I planned to go to school to be a pediatrician, and I got interested in engineering through a summer program. There was a conference about the Love Canal Disaster. Liquid chemicals had been dumped into this area for years. People forgot about it and built houses around it, and it started oozing liquid waste into people’s basements. I remember thinking, it was engineers who made the industrial process that created this waste, and it would be engineers who would figure out how to clean it up. I always say: some folks get involved in the environment because they love a beautiful place, or because of an iconic area like the Rocky Mountains or the Gulf of Mexico. I came to it because of a hazardous waste meltdown called the Love Canal. [Laughs.]

PINK: What’s the biggest issue for professional women today?

LJ: One of the things I love about my career in public service is that [due to] luck in timing and the quality of the federal workplace – I never felt like I had to make a choice to go on the “mom track.” Oftentimes women get out into the workplace and are made to have self-doubt about whether we’re on the right track in terms of work and family. We have to get past those moments. The first time you have it, you need to recognize it and learn how to deal with it.

PINK: What’s the best business advice you’ve received?

LJ: I took some great leadership training at the University of Virginia. The best was a course on Ethics & Government, which sounds like a really boring topic, but it wasn’t about trivial things. It was about how to be a genuine leader – how to make sure that you were true to the job and to your public service. Business is a little different – you have responsibilities to the shareholder or the consumer, depending on your business. At the government, our responsibilities are to uphold the Constitution and the law. The best advice was knowing and understanding that every public [servant’s] job isn’t to place their own agenda or to impose their values, but to implement the laws the best they can, to be fair to all parties.

PINK: Describe your leadership style.

LJ: I’m now leading an agency that I’ve worked in, and I think my leadership reflects that. I’ve seen both sides of this equation: as the administrator and as the entry-level employee who’s so far away from the administrator that I’d never see them or have much interaction. On my first day [as administrator], I put out a memo that said we would rely on and seek out the very best science on what are increasingly complex environmental challenges, and follow the law as best we could. My style is transparent, participatory leadership that relies on staff, agencies and working collaboratively to achieve the best environmental results for the American people as efficiently as we can.

PINK: How do you communicate with your team?

LJ: Once a month, all of our senior managers meet, and we do our business for the entire day in one room – we call it the Green Room. The doors are open, if there are meetings to be had with that manager, they have them in an open space, so people can see those meetings happening. It builds camaraderie around the team and literally breaks down barriers between the programs.

Lisa P. Jackson

PINK: What’s your biggest weakness as a leader?

LJ: I love to manage, but the head of this agency cannot spend too much time managing. My job is to make sure I’m constantly looking at the balance between messaging what we’re doing to all of our stakeholders – whether that’s Congress, the American people, state partners or our tribal partners. That’s more my job than actually running the agencies.

PINK: What do you look for in a hire?

LJ: Judgment. I’ve also hired at different levels of my career, and its always the same thing. Whether I’m hiring someone to do administrative work, technical work or legal work, there’s one quality that you can’t teach – but people do learn it over time – and that’s judgment. If I find someone I think is talented and has good judgment, that’s a really good interview.

PINK: How do you balance Life/Work?

LJ: Young women today are so much more fortunate than our mothers. Some of the extraordinary women of my mom’s generation were the first ones out there working. They had full careers and full families, and they didn’t have cell phones or computers that can literally transport your desk to anywhere in the world. They weren’t able to be in touch with their children through a text message or Skype. Those are the tools that have made it possible for me. One other huge advantage is a supportive spouse [Kenny Jackson] who has a high-powered career of his own. He works for Bank of America, which has great Life/Work program that allows you to work from home. It’s cliché, but I always advise young mothers to develop a network.

PINK: What has been your proudest accomplishment at the EPA?

LJ: Expanding conversations on environmentalism. Whether you’re talking about groups that have never really engaged in environmental issues or about the fact that I am the first African American to lead the agency. A lot of the issues around environmental injustice touch Hispanic or African American communities, because they tend to be concentrated in areas that have been historically subject to pollution. I want to make sure that when people think of the EPA, they know we’re not just about traditional environmental groups. The work we do supports communities that believe we have a moral obligation to take care of our planet and pass it to our children. I always say environmentalism is not a spectator’s sport. You have to keep at it and you have to be actively engaged, and the way to engage those new communities is to expand the conversation.

PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

LJ: I grew up not only playing guitar, but singing in a band called “10:30.” At one point in time I thought I could be a singer. It was hip-hop and funk music. We sang at the 10:30 mass and then that group would meet in a garage. They were great musicians, I was just clearly along for the ride.

PINK: What does success mean to you?

LJ: I define professional success as setting up a strategy, incorporating it throughout the organization, measuring success toward achieving it and constantly trying to meet those goals. We have work to do under the Clean Air act to keep our nation’s air and water healthy and safe. In the larger picture of success, it’s about feeling as though I’m equally present in my family and at work. I have a house of boys [two sons, Marcus and Brian], and I model for them what a good parent is. Success is feeling a sense of fulfillment about what you do everyday. What you do at work and what you do at home.

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