Q&A: Beth Cobert '80, Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management| May 30, 2016
On July 10, 2015, President Barack Obama nominated Beth Cobert '80 to serve as the Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management. Prior to working at the OPM, she served in the Office of Management and Budget, and worked as a consultant for McKinsey for 29 years. She sat down with The Daily Princetonian to talk about her time at Princeton, her career and her excitement about Reunions.
Daily Princetonian: What made you interested in coming to Princeton?
Beth Cobert: I grew up in New Jersey, and my mother grew up right around the Princeton area, so I had always heard about Princeton. When I was in high school, I originally thought I wanted to be a math major, and Princeton had a great math department. I actually wanted to move Princeton to Massachusetts so I wouldn’t have to be an hour away from my parent’s house. I couldn’t persuade anyone to do that, so I came anyway. It was a great chance to go.
DP: What was your major, and what kinds of activities were you involved in?
BC: Academically, I was an economics major, and I focused on the quantitative side of economics. But, I took probably the minimum number of economics courses you needed to qualify for the major, and since they didn’t have the dual major and certificate programs that they do now, I sort of took advantage of taking all sorts of things. I took a bunch of art history, I took architecture, I took Russian history, I took chemistry, so I had a pretty eclectic curriculum, which was one of the things I loved about the place, since I could do all these different things. Outside of academics, the thing I was most involved in was Outdoor Action. I had gone backpacking before I came to Princeton, and I had gone on a freshman trip and then signed up to be a trip leader. I led freshman trips every year after that, and I taught a canoeing class with Rick Curtis ’79, who is the current head of OA. I probably spent most of my time on Outdoor Action.
DP: Could you talk a little bit about the topic of your senior thesis?
BC: My senior thesis was on a proposal before the International Monetary Fund to replace dollars as a reserve currency with a basket of other currencies. It involved a bunch of work down here [Washington, D.C.] with the IMF. At least one of the most challenging parts of it was that the proposal was a live proposal. My biggest fear was that a week before my thesis was due, they would actually make a decision, which would mean I would have to revisit everything in the thesis. Fortunately, I got the thesis done before they resolved the proposal, so that was a good thing.
DP: How has your Princeton experience prepared you for your career as a whole?
BC: I’d say that there are a couple of things that stuck with me. Princeton in the nation’s service, or the new version of Princeton in the nation’s service, which I know has been changed, is a value that I always felt was important. In my prior life, I was in the private sector, worked for a while, then went to Stanford Business School, joined McKinsey, and stayed there for 29 years before joining the federal government. I was always very involved in lots of different things in the community, such as leading a bunch of nonprofit organizations and other things like that. The things from Princeton that I would take away were both one, the values of what it is to be a real member of a community and try to make a difference. Secondly, I took a lot of different courses in a lot of different disciplines, and that sort of intellectual curiosity to let me find something new to learn, was in fact one of the reasons that I stayed as a consultant for so long, because I could always find a new client with a different set of problems and a different set of topics to work on. It also built a network of people whom I interacted with in my private sector life and actually here in Washington as well. I still stay friends with folks who I know from that context who have been involved in government or other roles, and I still seek out their advice, so lots of different connections.
DP: If there was one experience that made an impact on you at Princeton, what would it be?
BC: It is so hard to narrow it down to just one. I think it was just getting connected with so many different people, and having the opportunity to meet so many different people from so many different kinds of places. That really shaped me for just who I am, and sort of reminded me in multiple situations that it’s really valuable to get to know all the people you’re doing stuff with. I think that was the biggest piece, sort of an interpersonal perspective. From a more professional/skills perspective, it was sort of thinking your way through problems that you didn’t know anything about. You had to go to first principles and figure out how to assemble a set of facts and articulate a point of view. That is sort of the one thing that I have found, whether it’s in McKinsey, certainly in my role in the Office of Management and Budget, and here at the Office of Personnel Management. The hardest part is defining the problem in the right way and figuring out how you’re going to move people along to solve it. Though it’s an amorphous problem that needs a solution, at some point if it’s a problem that’s easy to solve, it wouldn’t be on my desk anymore.
DP: Is there some part of Reunions that you enjoy the most, and is there a reason you like to come back and visit campus?
BC: I’d pick two things. One, campus is a spectacularly beautiful place, and so especially having moved to the West Coast, I didn’t get back as often, so every time you come back there’s something new and different. I still am in touch with lots of my really good friends from Princeton. My three roommates, who I roomed with all through school, and I talk to each other all the time. To me, the most fun part about Reunions is reconnecting with the people who you both kind-of knew but weren’t good friends with. Just everybody seems to come to it from where they are right now and an openness to reconnect. It’s nice to see my really good friends at Reunions, who I talk to all the time, but it’s the rest of people…I always liked that person and I wondered what they were doing, and you get to find them and make connections with them and reconnect and that to me is the most fun part.
DP: Could you summarize the kind of work that you did for McKinsey and talk about one project that you thought was unique?
BC: Over the course of my time at McKinsey, I worked in a variety of areas. There was a lot of focus on retail financial services, such as financial services for individuals, and a lot of work around marketing, and a lot of work around economic development. If I were to pick a project, one that really stands out is the work I did in the last couple years there with a large foundation, looking at what it would take to drive the accessibility of financial services to the poor, people who were earning less than two dollars a day, and how could you use the mobile technology and advances in technology that made things cheaper and more secure to create new tools that would really help people manage their lives and have access to the resources they need to give them ways to save and ways to interact, that would enable them to lift themselves out of poverty. This goes back to my economics background, because you really have to understand how it was going to work for the providers and for the users in a way that fit together. So, it was a combination of economics, finance, and marketing all around something that I care passionately about. We did a lot of work looking at differences in Africa, India and other parts of Asia as to what we could learn and how we could scale these things. It had a huge impact in helping to increase penetration in multiple contexts.
DP: You mentioned that you spent close to 30 years at McKinsey, so what made you decide that you wanted to join the federal government?
BC: I was happily enjoying life at McKinsey, but was thinking about what was the next chapter in the things that I wanted to do, and I knew that part of it was beyond the work I’d done with nonprofits and finding a way to give back on a bigger scale. I got connected and I was very supportive of President [Obama] and the administration, and knew Sylvia Burwell, who at the time was Director of the Office of Management and Budget. I got invited to come and talk to them to talk about a role as Deputy Director for Management at the OMB.
DP: Could you talk about the different roles that you had within the OMB?
BC: The Deputy Director of Management is a role that in many cases goes to someone with a business and managerial background because the things that I was responsible for, you can think of as the operations of government, making government work. So, it includes things like the Office of E-Government and Information Technology, where the federal Chief Information Officer reported to me. That involved everything like a lot of initiatives for digitizing government, strengthening cyber defense, the whole piece about how do we use technology to make government work better. I had the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Much of what the government does is done through contracts, and contracts provide services to agencies all across the executive branches. I also was the Federal Controller, so basically the person in charge of the federal finances. It deals with how the government runs and operates shared services, manages its real estate, ensures proper payments, provides accurate financial reporting, these things are all sort of business-like, right? The last piece was something called the Office of Performance and Personnel Management, so in my role I was the federal government’s Chief Performance Officer. That was working across agencies to help them develop strategic plans and create a more rigorous performance review process and basically help run things. So, we did focus on all sorts of things to make government operate better, to provide better customer service, to improve IT, those were the kinds of things we did. It’s a very broad scope, and it cuts across all of the government.
DP: If someone were to ask how your work as the Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management directly affects them, what would you say?
BC: Two things. One is we actually touch a lot of people directly, since there are around two million federal civilian employees and there are about as many federal retirees, and we are responsible for their annuity payments, health care benefits, and things we provide to them directly. So that actually affects a lot of Americans. The piece where we touch other people is that we work with other agencies to bring great people to government and to equip them to do their jobs well. We are the people who help agencies bring talented people in, whether it’s recruiting astronauts for NASA, helping the Department of Interior hire park rangers, helping recruit scientists for the CDC, helping recruit cybersecurity experts for the Department of Homeland Security. We work to help bring great people into government so they can provide great services to the American people.
DP: Out of all the roles you have had over the years, is there one that you have enjoyed the most?
BC: It is the role I have now as the Acting Director of the OPM because it is the scale at which you can touch the federal government and the way the federal government can touch people for the better. I see it every day, and we get to see and hear about amazing things that people in the federal workforce do every day, whether it’s somebody helping put the programs in place to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, there’s a bunch of scientists in the VA who designed an exoskeleton so disabled veterans can stand. There’s stories upon stories about that, and you get to help make that happen and hear about that. One of the side perks of this job is that you get to throw out the first pitch at Public Service Recognition Night at the [Washington] Nationals game, so I got to do that last night, so that was kind of fun!
DP: Outside the work that you do in the government, is there something that you like to do for fun?
BC: Yes! So, I still love the outdoors and I love to go backpacking. Most of my family is based on Colorado, so we tend to do that there. I root for San Francisco and my heart is still in San Francisco, so I love to go to Giants games and wear my orange and black T-shirt. Despite throwing at the Nationals game, I am still a die-hard San Francisco Giants fan. I like to reconnect with my friends, so I’m looking forward to being at Reunions this weekend.