Ten Questions

May 12, 2013 10:36 pm

Monica Medina

Monica Medina

Monica Medina: "Effort matters, but in the end you are judged on results"

Monica Medina is executive director of the Wharton Public Policy Initiative at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. Launched in September 2012, the Wharton Public Policy Initiative offers independent, non-partisan research and resources to government policy makers and seeks to bring them closer to the business community. It also aims to expand opportunities for students to explore careers in public policy. Ms Medina joined as the initiative’s first executive director in April 2013.

After growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Ms Medina studied at Georgetown University on an Army ROTC scholarship and at Columbia Law School. She began her career on active duty for the US Army and has since worked for the US government. Her most recent tenure was at the US Department of Defense, where she was principal advisor on all defence policy matters involving personnel, energy and environmental issues, including climate change, healthcare, IT and women in the military.

Ms Medina has also worked in private law companies and for non-profit organisations. In her spare time, she enjoys football, ballet, gardening and running. She recently completed her first sprint triathlon.

1. Who are your business influences?

Growing up in Atlanta, Ted Turner, the founder of cable news network CNN, was a huge influence. He revolutionised the television industry and ultimately the news business. Similarly, I will always admire Steve Case, the American businessman, for helping to connect people via the internet at America Online. AOL pioneered email and fundamentally changed the way people interact with one another and for the better in my view. It is truly a small world thanks to electronic mail and its offspring, social networking. Both Turner and Case also care deeply about public policy and have made their mark at the intersection of government and business. I admire that they have been able to be both successful in business and make a contribution to civil society.

2. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I have always tried to tackle difficult public policy issues and achieve results that will benefit the public. I enjoy finding solutions – particularly now because politics is so divisive. There are times when the right answer is one that everyone can agree on. For example, as deputy undersecretary of commerce, after the Gulf oil spill, I worked with the impacted states and with BP to achieve an unprecedented agreement in which BP paid the states and the federal government $1bn to begin to restore the natural resources that had been damaged by the spill. Now the two sides are in litigation over the extent of the damages caused by the spill. But through the agreement, we were able to begin restoration years earlier than would ordinarily have been the case. I hope that with the Wharton Public Policy Initiative, I can find more “win-wins” for government and business.

3. What is an average day at work like?

My typical day is filled with watching the news, tracking Congressional hearings and floor debate and monitoring agency activities. I look for opportunities for the faculty and students at Wharton and at Penn more generally, to play a role in what is current in Washington, DC. So I connect people who have substantive knowledge and insight to the people in government who need that information to tackle complex economic policy issues. Some days the topic may be entitlement reform, other days it might be energy policy. If I am connecting policy makers to thought leaders at Wharton and Penn then I have had a successful day.

4. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

I attended college on an Army ROTC scholarship. Each week we had an extra class, often taught by non-commissioned officers, to prepare us for boot camp and eventually for military service. One day early on we were practising some military skill and I just could not get it right. I told the drill sergeant supervising our training that I was sorry for my performance. And he shot right back with a laugh, “I know you are sorry, so what? Now keep trying until you get it right!” That advice has stuck with me all my life. In the working world, sorry does not cut it. You have to keep working at something until you master it. In the military, that mastery can mean the difference between life and death. Effort matters, but in the end you are judged on results.

5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

The biggest lesson that I continue to try to learn is to “manage up” not just down. Unless one is really lucky or good or both, you will spend a significant part of your business career in middle management. It is important for most executives, and particularly for women, to learn how to deal with the layer(s) of management (mostly men) above them. There is no one way to do this because it depends so much on the circumstances and personalities involved, but it is crucial to success.

6. What advice would you give to women in business?

I am a generation ahead of Sheryl Sandberg and I think her advice to “lean in” is spot on. I have ploughed ahead with my career, working full time for nearly 27 years and raising three children, despite the difficulties of balancing family and work. I am not the chief executive of a major corporation, so I do not have the luxuries of private jets, stock options and lots of help. But I do have a wonderful husband, who encouraged me to keep going with my career and made it possible by being a true partner in all things relating to our family. And I consider myself a success because of the things I have accomplished, not the size of my paycheck or my title.

7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

I just left my job as special assistant to the secretary of defence at the Pentagon, which is definitely a male-dominated environment. I was known as someone who was not afraid to speak truth to power – to be strong and confident of my views without being arrogant. I saw many women in this environment who wanted to blend in with the men. Given the nature of the military, in which the chain of command must be adhered to, it is hard to know when it is appropriate to speak out. But I wish more military women felt comfortable doing so. The military is definitely trying to change its macho culture, given the pervasive problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault they face. Women need to rise to the occasion and speak up not only for all women but also for what they think is right in order to bring about the needed culture change.

8. What is the last book you read?

I just finished the powerful book, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powell. It is a moving and tragic story about soldiers fighting in Iraq. The real-life soldiers who have fought so bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan will need all our support as they come home and re-integrate into civilian life. It is so impressive how Powell, a first-time novelist and veteran, brought to life the horror of this war and the struggles of returning veterans.

9. What is your favourite business book?

I am really looking forward to reading Wharton professor Adam Grant’s new book: Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, which was just featured in the New York Times Magazine. As a public servant I have always found service and helping others to be rewarding. So Grant’s philosophy that helping others leads to success resonates with me. I hope we can inspire business students to work for the government for that very reason.

10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

I think I would have waited longer before starting a family – which is a very personal answer. I see that so many men and women today are able to build up expertise and a solid foundation in their chosen profession before trying to balance career with family obligations. When I was younger, having children after 35 was seen as too risky and difficult. But now it is totally acceptable and many women wait and with greater financial and career stability, the work-family juggling act seems more do-able.

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