Federal Spotlight: Elaine Ho
MC: How long have you been in Federal Service and what is your main responsibility in your role today?
EH: Right after law school, I started my career in the Air Force JAG Corps in 2001. I was actually at JAG School on September 11th. I served four years on active duty until 2005 and, in fact, I’m still in the Air Force Reserves today. After active duty, I took some time to go into private practice. In 2007, I then rejoined the Federal government and have been serving in various places through government ever since.
My most recent landing place is really a unique and awesome opportunity. The White House has started a new fellowship called the White House Leadership Development Program. The fellowship called for senior members across government to come together to see how we could tackle some really challenging problems and at the same time determine how we can get government to work more collaboratively. There are sixteen of us in this inaugural fellowship. My assignment is working with the Office of the First Lady and the National Security Council and a number of Federal agencies to help coordinate and implement the First Lady’s initiative called Let Girls Learn. This fellowship started in November and it’s been a fascinating experience so far to work with her office and the other Federal agencies involved in this important work.
MC: A quick follow up regarding this Fellowship: what qualities do you embody and demonstrate to your peers, your team, and young women that you think will help them have a similar trajectory in their careers?
EH: I think I have been exposed to so many different leaders along the way, and one thing I’ve been intentional about is observing, absorbing, and seeing what works for you. I would say, first and foremost, to be authentic. You may see someone who is successful and demonstrate a certain leadership characteristic, but it may or may not work for you. You may need time to figure what it means “to be yourself,” but it’s one the best pieces of advice that people have given me.
I also think being resilient is really important as a leader because you’re thrown so many different curve balls. You’re dealing with so many different personalities, you’re trying to build relationships, and sometimes you’re in a really stressful environment trying to make significant progress. Inevitably things will happen that will get you down; it’s really important to figure out for yourself how you can bounce back.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t identify being inclusive as an important leadership quality. While I’ve done a lot of different things in my career, a large part of it has been in the diversity and inclusion space. Not only have I studied and researched the principles of diversity and inclusion, but I have also had opportunities to practice, guide, and convey to others the value of inclusion – the importance of leveraging the different strengths and talents around you, allowing different perspectives to be heard and engaging individuals for who they are.
MC: What keeps you motivated and passionate to stay in the public sector?
EH: I have spent time both in the private sector and public sector. The opportunities that you have in the public sector to give back, and to serve others for a greater purpose – those opportunities are immense and it’s truly rewarding work. I think that’s what keeps me going; I think that there’s certainly some frustrating days in government, whether it’s the bureaucracy or the inability to move as fast as you’d like. But I think having having a job that you’re able to see that you’re making a difference, even if it is on a small scale, that’s what keeps me motivated to stay in the public sector.
I also think it’s the amazing people you’re surrounded by – at all levels of government. My time in the Air Force and in Federal service have shown me, countless times over, that people in the public sector have a real passion to serve. Seeing that and being immersed in that – it’s contagious. Let me give you an example. Prior to this White House fellowship, I was at the IRS. While some people may want to run when they hear IRS, I can tell you that there are thousands and thousands of the most dedicated front-line employees, at call sites or walk-in centers, who genuinely care about how they can better serve the taxpayer. And at the highest levels of the organizations, as the Deputy Chief of Staff, I got to work with Commissioner John Koskinen, a brilliant leader that consistently exuded optimism, humility, and compassion, even during the most difficult of times for the agency. Truly motivational and inspiring.
MC: What is one of your biggest achievements?
EH: You know, I have been so fortunate to have been surrounded by incredibly accomplished people. Like right now, if you look at the bios of the other fellows in this White House program, you will see my peers have done some really incredible things. Or in my last role at IRS, I had the privilege of working along side leaders who held such important responsibilities in making every facet of our tax system run efficiently. So when you ask me about my biggest achievement, I feel like I’m a little at a loss to answer that question.
And it’s not that I’m selling myself short. It’s just that I have come to recognize that my success isn’t packaged so neatly with a bow into one accomplishment or another. I have just come to recognize that my success is helping others to reach their success. I’ve always been part of sparking organizational change – whether that be in an office, across divisions, or within entire organizations. I try to be the person to introduce or encourage a different way of doing business; being out in front when I need to or paving the way in the background; bringing unlikely groups together or working an issue by engaging one party at a time. For me, my accomplishments come from empowering leaders, being the bridge between conflict or setting a vision and removing the obstacles get there. Truly, for me, my success is about others’ successes.
MC: What advice would you share on making public service a career and not a pit stop?
EH: I can’t underscore enough the personal reward in serving your country and the incredible opportunities to give back. And doing it all with the work life flexibility the Federal government affords – at least in my case it did! When else and where else would I have the opportunity throughout a career to be the Diversity Director for the Department of Agriculture, Deputy Chief of Staff for the IRS, be a part of a new White House program, and be an Air Force Reservist – all while being a partner to my husband and mother to my three kids?
That being said, I do think it’s good that people get different perspectives – whether it’s with the private sector, or the non-profit sector, or being self-employed. Having a variety of experiences from different sectors, let you draw on the benefits of each.
MC: What advice would you share with young people on entering government?
EH: It’s easy to dismiss the government as a possible entry point. You may not make as much; there may be frustrations in available technology; and there may not be many of you in your peer group. But, my advice, is to take a closer look. If your first Federal position doesn’t seem to be the right fit, try again. There are dozens and dozens of different agencies, with different missions, that touch different segments of the American population and beyond. And within each agency there are countless opportunities. See where you can excel and shine. Find the right agency and the right position for you where you can make a difference.
MD: One more question…we saw on the Let Girls Learn website that the First Lady had posted a YouTube video and it’s titled Dear Me: The First Lady’s Message to Her Younger Self. What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
EH: Be little more patient and to get a little more perspective. Looking back, I think if I had the maturity to step back and to see the situation through the eyes of others – if I was willing to be patient to see how things unfolded – rather than to do, do, do and go, go, go, I think that certain situations would have turned out a little differently for me. But, as I tell my children, some life lessons you have to learn the hard way. As difficult, and sometimes embarrassing, those instances might have been, I think it was those experiences like those that made me who I am today.
*Answers reflect Elaine’s own personal views and do not reflect those in her official capacity.
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