Herma J. Hightower has barely begun to unpack the boxes that transported her office paraphernalia from Iowa to Baltimore, where she now occupies the director's suite for one of the Internal Revenue Service's largest districts. But she has retrieved a few favorite items that made the trip.
There's a giant "good luck" card adorned with the colorful palm prints of children from the day care center Ms. Hightower established in her previous IRS position. And then there's the dinosaur poster with the poignant caption, "History is full of giants who couldn't adapt." That's a message Ms. Hightower says she lives by.
"If you recognize you must change in order to excel, it makes it easier," she explains.
Ms. Hightower, the newly installed director for the IRS' Baltimore District, seems to thrive on change.
She started her IRS career in 1978 in Phoenix, Ariz., as an assistant to the district director there. A year later, Ms. Hightower, who had left her post as deputy associate superintendent of Arizona schools to join the IRS, completed the agency's Executive Selection and Development Program.
Over the next 11 years, her ascent through the ranks of IRS executive management took her to Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta and Des Moines, where she became one of the handful of women to hold the title of director.
Here in Baltimore, Ms. Hightower takes over the nation's 16th largest district. She and her staff of 1,727 are responsible for examining tax returns, collecting delinquent taxes, investigating tax abuses, answering filing questions and providing tax-related information.
Last year, the Baltimore office processed more than 4.6 million filings representing $30.5 billion paid in federal taxes.
Recognizing that the Internal Revenue Service isn't everyone's favorite federal entity, Ms. Hightower believes that the agency must continuously improve its service to taxpayers. Since it depends on voluntary compliance, "We must provide assistance and support to taxpayers who are trying to pay," she says.
On the other hand, to retain the public's respect, the agency must also aggressively pursue tax dodgers, she says. "We have to be ahead of the curve in terms of the schemes people come up with."
The key to success starts within the walls of the IRS, Ms. Hightower contends. The current agency-wide computerization project, which will enable the IRS to keep tax filings online for easy access and duplication, is an important step toward servicing taxpayers better. Yet, the best way to foster courtesy and professionalism starts with each manager, the 47-year-old Ms. Hightower says.
"It goes back to the golden rule, and generally employees are treating the taxpayers the way their managers are treating them."
In Des Moines, Ms. Hightower encouraged employees to "get out and talk to people and let them know we are human beings."
"We kept a presence in the news to let them know the positive things we were doing," she says.
Similarly, in Baltimore Ms. Hightower says she will strive to inspire in her employees a humanistic and thorough approach to what can be a difficult job.