A Lifetime of Service: An Interview with Secretary Ray Mabus

Joe Kurtenbach, Contributor

Over the course of his career, Ray Mabus (HLS ‘75) has held remarkably diverse, high-level roles in both state and federal government: from first serving as Mississippi State Auditor at the age of 35, to becoming the nation’s youngest governor, to his role as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia—and finally his tenure as Secretary of the Navy. Since he now works at the Business School, Law School, and Kennedy School, I was fortunate enough to talk with him about the lessons he’s learned over his career in public service.

After graduating from the University of Mississippi, Mabus began his career as a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. Immediately, he says, he felt the weight of responsibility: “I was 21 years old—a division officer on a cruiser—and suddenly was responsible for 60 people: I was their mother, their father, their priest, their rabbi, their banker, their psychiatrist. You grow up quickly—the decisions you make have impact on lots of other people.”

Given that he served on the USS Little Rock (then stationed in Newport, RI), he didn’t have to go far after leaving the military to start his studies at Harvard Law School. Harvard, he says, “broadened my worldview pretty dramatically, mainly because of the diversity of the people in the class.” Furthermore, “The leaders of countries would come and not only speak, but you’d get the chance to interact with them. I grew up in a town of a thousand people in north Mississippi—to have that sort of opportunity at that age was just astounding to me.”

Upon graduation, he started his legal career as a clerk for a federal judge, then at a law firm in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, however, he felt drawn back to Mississippi—and saw the perfect opportunity when the newly-elected Governor, William Winter, offered him a position on his staff. “When I announced that I was leaving and going back to Mississippi, a guy at my firm asked me, ‘What are they gonna pay you?’ and I said, ‘About a third of what I get paid here.’ And he said, ‘Why would the governor want someone that dumb on his staff?’”

Mabus’s political career quickly took off. Under Governor Winter, Mabus lobbied for and helped pass a landmark education bill, giving over 700 speeches in one year in support of education reform. Looking back, Mabus still considers it one of the highlights of his career. “The bill was going to make life better for thousands and thousands of people. And they would never have any idea of who did it, or how it got there—but that was one of the most satisfying things.”

At the end of Governor Winter’s four-year term, Mabus began his own campaign for State Auditor, despite, he says, having “never taken an accounting course.” He ran on an anti-corruption platform with the slogan, “You’ve got a right to know where your money goes” and, although he was outspent five to one, Mabus emerged victorious with just over half of the vote. His first order of business was fulfilling his campaign promise of tackling the corruption that had come to plague local governments. “Everybody knew folks were stealing—it was just common knowledge. People who couldn’t afford a car became county supervisor, and four years later they’d have one of the biggest houses in town…and it probably wasn’t from shrewd investing.”

Partnering with the FBI, Mabus launched an anti-corruption sting called “Operation Pretense”, resulting in over 50 local and county officials either being convicted or pleading guilty. Before—and throughout—the operation, senior public officials warned Mabus that it would likely mark the end of his political career. But, in choosing to go forward with the sting, he says that he reflected on some of his father’s advice. “When I decided I was going to run for office, he told me, ‘Be honest. Be honest with the voters, and be honest with yourself. Stand for something.’”

In the end, Mabus’s work as state auditor resonated positively with voters. Running in a crowded field during the 1988 election for Governor of Mississippi—the youngest candidate by 15 years—he was able to break out from the crowd and win the election. “After the first debate, I was walking out with Tom Oppel [his communications director], and I said, ‘I’m either going to win this big or I’m going to lose this big—because there were nine people saying one thing and I was saying something completely different.’”

As governor, Mabus continued to aggressively overhaul the state and local governments. Having run on the slogan “Mississippi will never be last again,” he and his team became obsessed with metrics, working particularly to continue education reform and decrease corruption. Reflecting on his time in the statehouse, Mabus said, “I think being governor is the best elected job in America. It’s big enough that you can have a significant impact, but it’s small enough that you can see results. And you live with people you’re affecting, see the people you’re representing, and have the ability to listen to them. What do they think is important? How do they approach issues? Pretty soon, if you listen—they’ll tell you.”

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus speaks to Marines at Camp Pendelton’s School of Infantry. Photo Credit: Photo by Charlie Neuman/San Diego Union-Tribune/©2016

Mabus was then appointed to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “The touchstone that I tried to keep when I was ambassador, was that I’m here to represent the United States to Saudi Arabia—not vice versa. I’m not here to represent the Saudi point of view; I’m here to represent American values, I’m here to represent what we stand for.” For example, Mabus says that he would “take a woman into virtually every meeting that [he] had with the Saudis” in order to demonstrate the American perspective of gender in the workplace. Afterwards, upon leaving Saudi Arabia, Mabus returned to the private sector, where he served as the CEO of Foamex International, Inc. before being called again to public service.

In 2009, President Obama appointed Ray Mabus to serve as the nation’s 75th Secretary of the Navy. Once sworn in, Mabus quickly set to work on four key areas, which he referred to as the “Four Ps”: People, Platforms, Power, and Partnerships:

People: “The focus here was on sailors, Marines—we focused a lot on answering the questions of, ‘How you promote? How do you keep diversity in the force?’ Diversity of thought, and diversity of experience. And how do you keep innovation going in an organization that big?”

Platforms: “We were able to put 86 ships under contract—and we did it with a 20% smaller top line. We’ll get 300 ships by 2019, we’ll get to 308 in 2021. And, importantly, we protected the money for R&D in science and technology. You don’t want to send sailors and Marines into a fair fight—ever.”

Power: “Energy is a military vulnerability, so we changed the types of energy the Navy and Marine Corps used and how much they used. One of the important things for SEALs and Marines, in particular, is to be able to make energy where they’re fighting. Instead of generators, we started using solar panels. We were losing a Marine—killed or wounded—every 50 convoys of fuel that we brought into Afghanistan, and that was too high of a price to pay.”

Partnerships: “This was both partnerships with our international allies, and partnerships with the American people. The Navy and Marine Corps is America’s away team. When they’re doing their job, it’s usually a long, long way from home. Trying to connect the American people with their military is important: in a democracy, it’s dangerous when you get too much distance between those doing the protecting and those being protected.”

Now, once again in the private sector, Secretary Mabus is working at Harvard and serving as an advisor to Google Ventures. “The reason that I’m pretty excited to be at a venture fund is that it focuses on what’s coming next; it’s less of maintaining what you’ve got. The portfolio companies are working on things as varied as technology and apps, to healthcare—things that can really help people’s lives. It’s pretty exciting to work with these incredibly bright minds that have seen something that nobody else has seen and found an avenue that nobody else has taken.”

His closing words are particularly relevant as graduation nears at an institution that educates “leaders who make a difference in the world”: “At some point in your life, you have to do something bigger than yourself. You don’t have to be in the military, you don’t have to join the Marine Corps, you don’t have to run for office—but be engaged.”

Joe Kurtenbach (HBS ‘18) is originally from Nevada, IA and attended the U.S. Naval Academy. Prior to HBS, he worked as a naval officer and served overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Djibouti.