Just before my 24th birthday, I landed what I thought would be a great government job. My boss was a long time public servant. She had worked hard for the government for her entire career and was proud of her service. I quickly learned that she believed in traditions, in doing things by the book, and that I should always take notes. I thought she was a dinosaur who would never hear my exciting new ideas.
On my first day, she had me begin printing out the Federal Acquisitions Regulation or FAR. The FAR is a document that spells out the rules for government purchasing and payment. It is more than 2,000 pages long and filled about twenty, four inch binders that I stored in two large file cabinet drawers. My next task was to look up specific regulations that would be important to my work. I quickly logged onto Google, found the correct parts and read all about them. I never cracked open those binders again in the nearly three years I worked there.
As wasteful and time consuming as the exercise was, I did learn a few things from it:
- There are a lot of rules for spending government money.
- Google makes it easy to look up any part, subpart, or subchapter of the FAR, if you know what to look for.
- Printing, hole punching, and filing a 2,000 page document by hand takes a very long time.
- Most importantly, I learned that some bosses are more focused on keeping things from changing than they are on helping their people learn, grow, and succeed but even they have valuable knowledge to share.
I had heard jokes about government employees and the paperwork involved in government work. I expected some of it but was shocked by the deeply ingrained need for adherence to tradition and unwillingness to change that I saw. Though not universal, this reluctance to encourage or even accept growth and change is particularly damaging to the public sector because if the next generation cannot pick out the useful wisdom, it will be discarded with the outdated traditions.
In order for an organization to maintain knowledge gathered over the course of a career, it is necessary to pass it on to the next generation of government leaders. If the current leaders fear the change, new ideas and ways of the next generation, that knowledge will get lost in translation. Likewise, if the new generation of leaders is unable to see past the old and outdated traditions of the outgoing leaders, they will not have the benefit of those lessons already learned.
If you have a boss who seems like a dinosaur, try to ignore the outdated ways and look for the meaning behind them. My boss insisted that I always bring a notebook when I met with her. I knew I could remember the majority of what she told me and figure out the rest. But showing up with that notebook was what she needed to trust that I was listening to her. By playing the game I was able to learn a lot from her in the end. Had I made the choice to dig in my heals and refuse to go along, I would have missed out on wisdom that I still use in my career today.
If you are a boss who struggles with the new generation, be careful to remember that the new ideas and ways of doing things that they are so excited about will be the foundation of your organization’s future. Try to encourage and direct those ideas to give them the best chance for success. The new generation may not have your experience but their enthusiasm is valuable. Along with your accumulated knowledge that enthusiasm might just make a critical difference you could never have seen and the impact of your encouragement could be felt for generations.
What advice do you have for passing down or receiving wisdom and traditions?
Many of the people I know who work in the public sector were drawn to their jobs by a desire to serve, to make a difference in their community or the country. After landing that first desk job though, I have also seen them lose their drive. If you’ve ever done it, you know, sitting in a cubicle day after day, surrounded by endless paperwork and coworkers who checked out years ago is anything but fun.
Getting stuck in a routine is a hazard of many desk jobs. Being around complacency is often contagious. But you don’t have to catch it and you can help build an environment that is invigorating rather than draining.
- Spend time innovating – It will not always be successful but actively spending time thinking about how to improve a processes, offer a better experience to customers, or solve a problem is important. It is not only useful but can be invigorating. You won’t always find a solution but working on problems and processes will keep you and your team focused on a positive future.
- Make time to move around – Get up, take a walk, talk to neighbors, or go to someone else’s workspace to ask a question instead of calling. A change of scenery, however small is important. You never know what you’ll learn when you get out of your regular space.
- Remind your team to engage their customer – Even if the only customer is internal, make a point to check in and ask if there is anything they would like to see change. It’s easy to operate with blinders on; you can’t always see how others are impacted by your habits and processes. If you and your team make a habit of asking for and responding to feedback you will learn a lot about how others work and what they really need.
Being motivated about work is not about the financial reward but the emotional reward when you experience success and satisfaction from making a meaningful and positive impact. Mixing up the routine and interacting will help create a collaborative environment. Team members can draw on the unique experiences they have which makes everyone stronger. One of my favorite sayings around the office is: “None of us is as smart as all of us”. It is the theme of High Five by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles that explains “the magic of working together”.
How do you keep your team excited about their work? Is there something you do regularly to remind yourself why you love your job?
Feedback is not easy for most people. Learning to give it constructively and receive it gracefully are two skills that can make difficult situations much less so. Getting in the habit of asking for feedback is also important. You should be soliciting feedback from your direct reports, or letting them know that you are interested in hearing what they have to say.
Giving constructive feedback takes some thought. You must consider the impact to the person. It seems simple but the words used, the venue and time chosen, and event the topic of feedback will all make a difference in how it is received.
- Know your audience –Some people would be happier to have you praise them privately. If you are giving good feedback be aware of the person’s preference for being praised publically.
- Give notice – For negative feedback try to give the person time to get ready to talk about it. If you have regular meetings tell them you want to talk about the issue or project during the meeting, if not set something up specific to the topic.
- Plan your words – Remember to separate the tasks, actions, or project from the person. Be sure you will hit all the essential points and be specific. Give examples of what a good job looks like or what has been done well.
Receiving negative feedback gracefully can be even more difficult. No one likes being told their efforts have been for not, or that their work must be redone. There is a lot to learn from how others see us and welcoming feedback can help you redirect your efforts and be more successful.
- Listen for the meaning – Not everyone is good at communicating directly. Difficult conversations sometimes inspire people to tap dance around an issue. Listen for the problem, try to be task specific, and ask for suggestions on how to make a correction.
- Ask questions –General feedback is usually only a mask for the problem, you need to learn the specifics so you can make a change.
- Agree on expectations – It is easier for many people to be indirect. They get to leave the conversation feeling like they gave you the necessary feedback but you might be left wondering what it is they want. Ask what the person needs or expects from you.
Cultivating truth tellers among your team and being willing to play the role for others is a useful way to actively gauge how effective a leader you are. Learning to give and receive useful feedback takes trust and practice. The benefits of knowing where you stand with your team, being able to make meaningful changes mid-project, and building understanding are so valuable. Much more so than the temporary comfort of avoiding an awkward conversation.
Do you have truth tellers on your team? Do you have any tips for giving good feedback?
Have you seen Simon Sinek’s 2014 TED talk, Why good leaders make you feel safe? He said, “In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.” He is pointing out the best and worst of these two work environments. The culture in the military expects and rewards those who look out for others. Yet, we seem to reward just the opposite in business.
I have seen this sacrifice of others in government workplaces first hand but the most visible example I can think of is the impact of delaying the annual budget each year. Congress and the President are responsible for the budget but in recent years they have put it off too long, or been unable to agree on what programs get funded. As a result the people are unexpectedly denied services and government employees are faced with unplanned, indefinite furloughs. Workers have to live without a paycheck. And though they will eventually get their job back, and are likely to get back pay, they are living on savings. Not a safe place to be. It is easy to understand workers feeling betrayed.
Every day people perform extraordinary acts of selflessness. Sinek tells the stories in his TED talk of a Medal of Honor winner and a manufacturing company with a furlough program that saved every employee’s job and improved moral during very hard times. The people we would choose to follow are those who inspire our loyalty by giving of themselves. They are leaders because they go to great lengths to do what is best for the safety and the lives of their people.
When people know they will be taken care of, they can focus on making great things happen. Just imagine if business and government leaders focused on creating environments that foster cooperation and make people feel safe. The possibilities are endless.
What do you do to make your people feel safe and cared for?
I was struck last month by a story I read in The New York Times. The Prime Minister of South Korea announced he was stepping down after 302 lives were lost in a ferry disaster. In that article, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won is quoted saying “when I saw the people’s sadness and fury, I thought it was natural for me to step down with an apology”.
Arguably, our public servants should be doing what is in the best interest of the public. It is sometimes difficult to imagine American leaders being so altruistic, though I do know some lesser known public leaders who are. The South Korean Prime Minister seems to have applied the philosophy of Servant Leadership. He made a decision to step down so that he would not be an impediment to his country moving forward after a tragedy. He took ultimate responsibility even though the disaster will likely be what he is remembered for.
Government employees are often called public servants. The idea is that when you work for the government, the people are the ones to whom you are ultimately accountable. When working as a public servant it is important to ask ourselves, am I a self-serving leader or a servant leader? It is easy to tell the difference. When faced with feedback self-serving leaders are ruled by their fear of loss of position or status, while a servant leader will see feedback as information useful to allow her to provide better service.
Servant leadership goes beyond putting others first. It is supporting and growing individuals to allow them to do their best work. That doesn’t mean letting your team run the show. It means taking initiative to remove road blocks and get your team what they need to produce quality products and services. You can read more about the philosophy in chapter 14 of Leading at a Higher Level. There is a great story about a Department of Motor Vehicles lead by a servant leader who made a big impact in how citizens were treated and how quickly they were served.
How do you serve those you lead?
Who do you admire? Perhaps you know someone who has overcome some extreme personal challenges or has shown himself to be particularly true to his morals and an example to others. Take a moment and think of at least one person who has impressed you with their actions or kindness. Have you ever told that person you admire them? If you haven’t, you should.
There are many people I admire. One in particular is a very close friend of my family who has filled a role similar to an aunt to me since I was about ten-years-old. She and her husband lived an amazing balance of just enough planning for the future and living in the present. Their story is one marked by his chronic illness and struggle for health. We lost him suddenly late last year just before his 60th birthday, and it rocked our community.
Last year on Christmas I stuck a note into my friend’s purse while we were celebrating. She found it the next day and loved it so much she showed it to my mom, who was a little choked up when she told me. It was simple but important because I had never told her just what her example means to me.
In the note I told her that I aspire to be more like her in that she doesn’t make a big fuss over day-to-day life. When we were kids, she was the mom who said, “Whoever wants to go to the beach, put on your suit and grab a towel; we’re leaving in ten minutes”. She always kept things simple. I love that she can embrace whatever is good right now, even when she is dealing with some pretty terrible things that she cannot control. And she always finds a way to give of herself and make the people in her life feel valued.
Part of what makes my friend’s example so meaningful to me is that I struggle with some similar challenges. It doesn’t always look easy but I can see she is trying and making the best of what she has. I have struggled with my own husband’s injury, the limitations it has created, and the difference in both of us since it occurred. I have often thought I am no match for this task.
Leadership is about being an example in the way you live. It is about living in a way that makes you happy and proud. And it is about learning from challenges and mistakes. Leadership means showing those around you who you want to be in the hope that they may be inspired to live up to their own potential. My friend is a great example to her community, her daughters, and those of us who have grown up around her family. She is no doubt, an inspiration to those she works with and the people she serves in her role at work. She has the ability to effortlessly show care for those around her.
When working for the government, the opportunities to reward employees financially are limited. Telling someone you admire or are inspired by them might be even more meaningful than a financial reward. We all have our own stories that include personal struggle. It is important to be tuned into what those around us face because it helps to build understanding. The very best leaders take time to get to know what is important to their people.
Who inspires you and when was the last time you told them why?
One of my favorite sitcoms, How I Met Your Mother, ended last month. In the final episode the character, Marshall Ericksen, an environmental lawyer, was shown working for a corporate law firm; a job that made him miserable. He had resolved to say only positive things about his job and in one scene was asked how he liked his job. Marshall responded, “I have a very comfortable chair”. This is an extreme example but we do know that there is power in positive thought and focusing on the good in things. As a leader, there are some simple things you can do to help your team stay positive.
Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge included 12 Simple Truths in their book Helping People Win at Work. The book shares the business philosophy “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A”. In other words, give people the tools they need to be successful; if they know what will be on the test they can get an A. Here are a few of my favorite Simple Truths:
Simple Truth 1 – Performing Well: What Makes People Feel Good About Themselves
This Truth addresses the importance of experiencing and then building on success. People need to know they are making progress. It is cumulative; people who get good results feel good about what they do and build their confidence. With that confidence they can go forward and get more good results.
Simple Truth 6 – The Ultimate Coaching Tool: Accentuating the Positive
It is important to catch people doing things right, even if you are only able to praise progress. Some managers show up when they need to correct a problem but forget to point out the positive contributions their team members make every day. When was the last time you went looking for a team member doing something right?
Simple Truth 12 – Celebrate Successes
Look for the good, celebrate it with your team members, and tell others.
I have heard many times from those who work in the public sector that they are limited in what they can do for their team members by regulations. There is no regulation that can limit your ability to approach leadership with the intent to serve those you lead. Be available, remove roadblocks to success, look for and point out the good in people every day. Positivity is contagious and leaders have the ability to spread happiness in their organization. Even if your team never mentions it they will see and react to your example.
In the end Marshall, an aspiring public servant, achieves his dream of becoming a judge. He finds his happiness in his dream job and no doubt spreads his joy every day. How have you helped your team members find their happiness and get an A?