Katherine Bell, Harvard Business Review: How does it feel to be back at Stanford after eight years away?
Condoleezza Rice: It’s great. In some ways I don’t feel as though I’ve been away. I’ve been here since 1981, so it’s coming back home. I’m teaching in the business school this time, which I hadn’t done before, but teaching is very familiar to me, Stanford is very familiar to me, being involved in Stanford sports is very familiar to me. So it’s been a pretty easy transition back. And I was really ready to leave government.
Bell: You’ve specialized in big career moves between sectors. How have you made those transitions work?
Rice: I believe you should never spend your time being the former anything. I wasn’t the former special assistant for Soviet affairs, I was the new provost. And I wasn’t the former provost, I was the new national security adviser. And now I don’t plan to be the former secretary of state, either. I think if you take that attitude, then you fall more easily into a new environment.
You have to leave behind the context of what you were doing and adapt to the new context, but the nice thing about making these transitions back and forth is you can bring new skills and new ways of looking at problems.
Bell: What piece of knowledge from your academic career did you find most useful in the State Department?
Rice: I found it useful to remember that most institutions don’t want to change. They’re institutions because they’ve developed a certain set of traditions and norms and expertise, and change is hard. A lot of the work I’d done as an academic affirmed that usually institutions change when they’re failing. It’s very hard to make them change when they’re succeeding. They take the cues too late from the environment. The question is, how do you get a relatively successful institution to respond to really new challenges? The fact that I’d studied how institutions develop was very helpful when I found myself leading a Department of State that was having to adapt to a post-9/11 world.
I found three things helpful. One is that you have to paint a picture of other times that that institution has responded to change and difficulty successfully. So in the State Department I talked a lot about how the department responded after World War II and laid the foundation then for the successful end of the Cold War.
Second, [it helps] if you can find in the institution a counternarrative that supports the direction of change. One of the things I wanted to do with the Department of State was to make it more expeditionary, to have fewer people sitting in capitals like London and Paris doing political reporting, and more people with the military out in Kabul or Baghdad or for that matter with aid workers in the highlands of Guatemala or in AIDS clinics in Mozambique. And I found that actually there was a tradition of people in the department who had served in places like Beirut and Colombia and Syria under tough conditions. We could elevate that experience and say, this is what State Department officers do too. I also looked hard at what we were rewarding. If you’re saying the organization ought to be doing x, and you’re rewarding y, then people will take that signal. The Department of State had about thirty different awards for political reporting but none for civil/military cooperation and very few for human rights support. The direction we were trying to take the department was out of line with what was being rewarded.
And, finally, you have to look to see whether there are impediments to people doing the right thing. Mostly in good organizations, and the Department of State was certainly one, and I found this at Stanford too, people want to do the right thing—they don’t want to be obstructionist—but sometimes there are things that make it hard for them to do the right thing. For instance, in the Department of State I needed Arabic speakers to go to places like Baghdad, so I had to take them out of places like Cairo. But if they left Cairo, their families had to move all the way back to the United States. So we made it possible for their families to stay in Cairo while they served in Baghdad.
Bell: When you moved from national security to the State Department, you said you preferred having line responsibility to being in essentially a staff position. Looking back now, did that bear out?
Rice: There were some things I loved about being in the White House. I was a few paces from the president; I saw him six, seven times a day. I admire him, and I loved working with him that closely. But when you’re national security adviser it’s like trying to run foreign policy by remote control. “Can we get the secretary of defense to do this, the secretary of state to do that?” So on balance yes, I much preferred being secretary of state.
Bell: Your management style has been described as corporate and hierarchical. How would you describe it? Has it changed over the years?
Rice: I don’t think it’s very hierarchical. For instance, my assistant secretaries of state had an open door to me. I didn’t think they ought to go through anybody to get to me because they were my line managers. They were the people who had to make things happen, and I made it clear that they were empowered from the very beginning. But I didn’t believe that every person in the State Department ought to be articulating U.S. policy. That would be chaos.
When I first became provost, I’d never been a department chair, let alone a dean. Early on, I didn’t know how to delegate things. I was always trying to do other people’s jobs. I learned that first of all, you’ll drive yourself crazy doing that, and second, you won’t have very good people working for you very long. I got better at delegating, I think, after that.
Bell: As provost—essentially the COO of a $2 billion organization—how did you approach learning on the job and dealing with people who thought you were in over your head?
Rice: And with those who thought they should have been provost? Well, I had one advantage; it was clear what the focus of the provost had to be. I came in in ’93 and Stanford was in very deep economic trouble—we still had $157 million in earthquake damage that we couldn’t fund. So I knew that budget stability and rebuilding the campus were my primary responsibilities, and I focused on doing that.
I learned pretty soon that it’s actually not rocket science. The fact is you have to make pretty tough decisions, you have to make them strategically, and you can’t spend money you don’t have. I had also just come out of Washington, and I felt I’d been in pretty big shoes being the Soviet specialist at the end of the Cold War, too, and so I just sort of took it on. I got people around me whom I trusted and who I felt could help do the work. I had friends on the faculty I’d known for years who were able to be antennae for me about what was really going on and how much turbulence I was really causing.
Bell: Did you feel pressure to prove how tough you were?
Rice: In the first year or so, it wasn’t just about proving how tough I was, I had to be tough. I was pretty sharp with people. But I’d learned in the classroom that the last thing you want to do is put somebody down because then they freeze, and not only do they freeze, but the whole class freezes. I had to relearn that lesson as a manager.
Bell: Your relationship with President Bush is famously close. There were obvious advantages to that closeness. Did you find it had disadvantages as well? Being close to your boss can be complicated.
Rice: Well, first of all, it has many more advantages than not. When you’re negotiating with the Russian foreign minister, the last thing you want to be is out there on a limb by yourself, with the Russians not sure that you’re speaking for the president. But when I went over to State, it was important for me to have an independent voice, not to be the president’s voice. The other downside is that you have to be sure that you remember that he’s not only your friend; he’s the president.
Bell: Your extracurricular activities—playing the piano, watching sports, and working out—are very important to you. Have they influenced your approach to your working life at all?
Rice: The discipline of being a competitive skater and a pianist certainly helps in almost anything you do because you have to learn to manage your time, you have to learn to get things done and move on when you fail. But mostly [those activities] were there for me to balance my life. I am not a type-A workaholic. I know a lot of people don’t believe that, but I’m really not. There are a lot of things I’d prefer to be doing than working.
Bell: I’ve heard rumors that for your next big career move you would be interested in being football commissioner.
Rice: Well, I used to think I would. But I told Roger Goodell, the current commissioner, that when I was tussling with the Russians and North Koreans his job seemed pretty good, but now from Northern California it doesn’t seem that good anymore.
But I’d love to do sports management. I think it would be great fun.
Bell: You’ve had some pretty influential mentors and champions along the way. How much of that was luck and how much was purposeful?
Rice: It was a bit of both. I was fortunate in the people who came into my life, but I also sought out people from time to time who I thought were doing the sorts of things that I wanted to do. I wasn’t shy about calling people and saying, gee, would you talk to me for a few minutes? For instance, when I was a young professor, I called up and made an appointment to see the provost. Nobody calls up the provost, but I did, and he saw me. Of course you get there by your talents and so forth, but it doesn’t hurt to have people who are advocating for you.
Bell: People often remark on how confident you have been throughout your career. Are you as confident deep down inside as you appear to others?
Rice: I’m mostly a confident person. That comes from being well prepared, number one. I also gained advantage by very early on having to be in situations in which I had to perform: piano competitions, piano recitals, skating, which I was always really bad at, but I tried. And probably also more important, I have a mechanism that helps me to rule out failure until after something’s over, and then I think, oh that could have gone badly. It’s important not to dwell too much on the downsides, on what can go wrong.
Bell: And how do you deal with failure after the fact?
Rice: Well, that’s where having been a poor figure skater helped. You have to get up the next day, pick yourself up, and keep going.
Bell: Looking back over your career, what mistake do you most regret?
Rice: I really, really think it was the right thing to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but I wish we’d found a little earlier the right strategy for Iraq. And I regret that we couldn’t get immigration reform.
Bell: And what are you most proud of?
Rice: I’m very pleased that I focused as much personally as I did on the Middle East. We didn’t get there, but I think we set a tone for a different kind of Middle East. And I learned to love the Middle East.
Bell: What did you come to love about the region?
Rice: It has so much more potential than is being realized. And it’s alive with people who are challenging the old order in ways that don’t come through if you just assume it’s a place where there’s always violence. There are women doing great things. There are enlightened monarchs there who I think eventually will give birth to more democratic countries. There’s a lot going on in the Middle East, and I really love being there.
Bell: Where else did you find particularly fascinating in all of your travels?
Rice: Vietnam. It’s young. The people are very young, under the age of thirty, most of them. It is much more pro-American than we have any right to have hoped it would be. It’s energetic and entrepreneurial, and I just think it’s going to take off. It’s a place I really want to go back to.