Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell’s ‘Road to Impact’

Department of Health and Human Services head delivers first public speech at GW.

HHS Secretary Burrell speaks at GW podium with graphical representation of agency mark behind her
Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell addresses a packed crowd in Jack Morton Auditorium on Monday.
September 08, 2014

By Lauren Ingeno

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell’s management philosophy is built on three principles: impact, prioritization and relationships.

“This is the way I’ve always tried to work, and it is how we work at HHS,” Ms. Burwell said on Monday to a full audience in the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium. “We believe in building bridges, relationships and strong teams that have the talent and focus necessary to deliver results. We believe in managing well. We believe in transparency. And we believe in impact—impact on behalf of the American people we serve.”

In her first major public address since her June swearing-in as the 22nd HHS secretary, Ms. Burwell spoke to the GW community about her outlook on leadership and how it will translate to providing Americans with better healthcare solutions.

“I want to take this opportunity to share some thoughts with you as you look to find your own road to impact,” Ms. Burwell said to students in the audience.

Ms. Burwell grew up in Hinton, W. Va., a small town where she learned the values of community, trust building and hard work. Hinton is a tightknit community where neighbors look out for one another and “everyone feels a personal stake in contributing to the common good,” she said. She watched her grandfather, a Greek immigrant, manage his own restaurant in Hinton, and she scooped ice cream at Kirk’s Restaurant, “Home of the Hungry Smile.”

After two years in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Ms. Burwell led former President Bill Clinton’s economic transition team. She has held various titles, including president of the Walmart Foundation and president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program. She most recently served as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

In her new role as HHS secretary, she will oversee the 11 agencies that make up the HHS, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, Medicare and Medicaid.

Ms. Burwell said the first tenant of her management style is clearly defining what her team hopes to accomplish and why. And the way to reach those goals, she said, is through data-driven priorities.

“I’m a big believer in metrics, benchmarks and analytics,” Ms. Burwell said. “If you’re serious about delivering results and looking out for the taxpayer, you need to know whether what you’re doing is working.”

Ms. Burwell touched on the importance of creating teams with talented, focused members as well as forging lasting relationships that are built on trust. Finally, Ms. Burwell acknowledged her efforts to listen to ideas from the “other side of the aisle.”

Ms. Burwell has received strong support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and she has pledged to take a bipartisan approach to the Affordable Healthcare Act, one of the most contentious laws in American politics.

“So what I’ve told my team at HHS is that we’re not here to fight last year’s battles, we’re here to fight for affordability, access and quality,” she said.

She stressed that the Affordable Care Act is not about “making a point,” but rather it’s about “making progress” and creating a better system for all Americans.

“There is nothing ideological about curing cancer. There isn’t a Democratic or Republican way to stop the Ebola virus from spreading. There isn’t a liberal or conservative way to prevent suicide,” she said.

In the upcoming months, Ms. Burwell said she would work with leaders and constituents from both parties to make health care more affordable for working families, to improve and to expand Medicaid. She said she has plans to push HHS to work with hospitals to deliver quality, affordable care and to work with insurance companies to offer more choices.  

“Let’s move on from the back and forth,” she said. “Let’s move forward, together.”

Following Ms. Burwell’s speech, Seth Gold, a junior in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, presented the secretary with pre-submitted questions from undergraduate and graduate students. Ms. Burwell fielded questions about her work-life balance, her professional background, how she is addressing the challenges of her position and the importance of preventative care.


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