Because front-line people deliver on the agency mission every day, they inevitably encounter opportunities for improvement. However, if your leadership style does not promote the free exchange of candid feedback, you’re probably doing your agency and the public a disservice by not receiving and acting on potentially valuable information.
Setting the tone for feedback is a leadership skill that deserves attention and practice to ensure you do not miss opportunities for individual, team, and agency improvement. So what gets in the way of a free flow of information? Here are some common pitfalls.
- Lack of candor. When a leader establishes a work environment where candor is not valued, people have a tendency to tell the leader what they believe the leader wants to hear. This creates a “yes boss” mentality where the leader’s perspective and ideas are valued and reinforced above alternative points of view. As a result, there is a loss of diversity of thinking and input.
- Fear of retribution. “Why would I risk angering my manager with a potentially controversial observation?” If people feel they will be chastised, bullied, or ridiculed for speaking their mind, they will keep potentially useful ideas to themselves.
- Talking instead of listening. Does your team practice good listening habits? Or do people listen just long enough to reinforce their own opinions? If teams are not attentive and don’t explicitly convey a desire to receive feedback, information flow is restricted.
- Lack of action. Does your team make changes based on new input and suggestions? Or do team members take more of a “my way or the highway” approach that leads to disagreement? If you really value honest, candid feedback, you have to demonstrate that it is desired, valued, and acted on.
Open communication is a key to the successful fulfillment of the agency mission. What changes do you need to make in your leadership style and behavior to allow more candid feedback to come your way? These four starting points can serve as a road map as you begin to examine your own agency’s culture.
Recent Harvard research indicates that skills such as cooperation, empathy, and flexibility have become increasingly vital in the workplace. The findings also suggest that college curricula need to change to better prepare students to learn, understand, and apply these and related leadership skills.
In a corroborating study, researchers at Google recently completed an internal assessment that disproved the hypothesis that the best managers are those with technical expertise. Google’s study pointed to the following leadership activities that are characteristics of the best managers:
- Making time for one-on-one meetings,
- Helping employees work through problems,
- Taking an interest in employees’ lives
In the absence of formal college or other education to teach managers the skills necessary to be effective leaders, organizations must sponsor some form of leadership education. This education is particularly important for those who make the critical transition from individual contributor to managing others. For federal government agencies this leadership development can take various forms.
- Leadership Academy. An overarching curriculum can be designed for deployment across the agency. While this could be a costly approach, the benefits are far reaching because of the systematic and deliberate way in which coursework is role based and exposes all current and future leaders to skills that are required to successfully lead others.
- Online Learning. Provides the convenience of on-demand learning that fits with student schedules. Enables the learner to bookmark content when time is a constraint or when there is a need for a deeper dive into certain topics. Content can also be individualized and assigned based on agency role or level.
- Outsourcing. When an agency wants to reduce infrastructure required to design, deliver, and track leadership training, an external partner is a great benefit. Outside partners provide tested and proven curriculum that is available off the shelf. Such a partnership moves the agency from a higher level of fixed costs to more variable budgeting costs based upon utilization.
- Shadowing. A practical, hands-on way to prepare others for leadership assignments is to selectively expose high potential future leaders to agency procedures by having them shadow other leaders. For instance, a future leader can see how non-routine decisions are made, how metrics are used to evaluate the delivery of service, how workforce engagement is assessed, or how budgets are evaluated, just to cite a few common examples.
- Action Learning. Assign a topic of interest or consequence to a team of seven to ten high potentials. Have a senior leader coach the team and provide a framing statement for the team to use as navigation. After a two- to three-month period of time, the team presents a set of rationalized recommendations to senior agency leadership for evaluation and implementation. This is an excellent way to develop team collaboration and executive problem solving and presentation skills while helping senior leadership gain a fresh perspective on a challenge or opportunity.
The key in all cases is to provide high potential leaders with an opportunity to develop and refine their people leadership skills. By actively engaging in projects that rely on collaborating successfully with others, agencies can ensure that their leaders practice, identify weak spots, and take action to improve areas that will serve them and the organization throughout their career.
Let’s say there is a group assigned to providing support and aid to the victims of a natural disaster. This support will come from various agencies and require the coordination of human resources and material.
Without a common reference point and language, several elements of the relief effort could be inadequate—for example: determining the quantity of material, how the material will be delivered, personnel assignments, and logistics to support the movement of people to a necessary location. The success of this coordination is predicated upon the presence, understanding, and utilization of a common understanding.
The same is true within an agency. A shared language works just as well to help people from different functions work together effectively. Consider the following factors as you put together a common language dictionary. How many of these would you say have a shared understanding for your agency?
- Investments—A Common Vision. Agencies must set appropriate parameters and boundaries for what is in scope and how to define those elements. Where are we going as an agency? How do our individual roles contribute to that mission? Creating a common vision is the first place to begin.
- Execution—Fundamental Leadership. When an employee makes the transition from individual contributor to first time supervisor, skills need to be addressed such as how to address common challenges like conflict management, communication, delegation, and motivation. Have you created a well defined set of behaviors so that first time supervisors understand expectations?
- Empowerment—Defining Authority. Empowerment is central to the fulfillment of mission and employee engagement. But without a common definition of what empowerment entails, leaders will initiate empowerment in ways that can cause alignment and execution issues. Have you identified how procedures are to be performed by specific parties and what the limits to authority are? People perform best when the playing field is clearly marked. What have you done to identify what is in bounds and what is out of bounds?
- Beliefs—Shared Values. The common leadership language should reflect agency values that drive and support necessary outcomes. Further, leadership has the responsibility to periodically reinforce these shared values and remind the organization that converting values from common sense to common practice will deliver sound public service. Have you clearly defined agency values in a way that leaders can use to reinforce values and ensure adherence?
- Integration—Working Collaboratively. A final goal of a common leadership language is the elimination of silos that prevent two-way communication, feedback, and the sharing of resources. Have you identified and shared best practices on how to connect and leverage ideas and resources and provide continuous improvement feedback?
Speaking a Common Language
A common language provides an agency with a chance for incremental improvements in engagement and retention while it maintains the ability to deliver against mission. A common leadership language will improve the pace at which new leaders will learn and appropriately apply desired leadership practices. Mentoring and feedback across the agency will be aided because all leaders will have a common understanding and vision, allowing for more objective, timely, and accurate improvement of leadership capacity.
If your agency has not established a common leadership language, consider what steps you can take to reap the benefits of a common framework.
It’s people and their associated behaviors—not just spreadsheets and action plans—that drive successful projects. An effective manager-employee connection is vital: everyone has times when they need support, direction, and encouragement to stay energized and committed. Still, the notion of managers establishing and sustaining relationships with their people is often overshadowed by the day-to-day work of managing projects.
Here are four relationship building practices managers can use to help employees stay focused, stay energized, and COPE with workplace demands.
- Career planning. When employees believe there are options for advancement, they are more likely to have a high level of commitment. But it is important to remember that career advancement means different things to different people. One person might have a desire to lead others while another is content to be a specialist without supervisory responsibility. Successful leaders open a dialogue about specific options that are important to each employee, review potential paths to achieving goals, and maintain an ongoing conversation.
- Open door approach. Next, employees need to see the manager as easily accessible. An open door approach is a relationship building tool that enables a trusting, two-way dialogue. This can be achieved through MBWA (management by walking around—somewhat of a lost art); one-on-one meetings that create a safe harbor for exchange; reserving time in the office for employees to visit as desired; and using 360-degree feedback. Reserved office hours might take many of us back to university days when professors welcomed a visit to discuss a class assignment or clarify a topic. In addition to gathering needed information, these hours were conducive to relationship building—students knew they would be welcome without appointment or concern about interrupting workflow.
- Problem solving. The open door approach not only creates an environment and opportunity for exchange, it also provides a forum for problem solving. Problem solving often requires the support of others—and its success can depend upon the extent and effectiveness of the manager-employee relationship. If a solution calls for a change in policy, an allocation of resources, or something else requiring a manager’s involvement, the presence of a quality manager-employee relationship will smooth the process.
- Engaged Innovation. Innovation can move the agency needle on breakthroughs related to delivering the best public service. Often the answer to recurring and persistent issues can be found at the point of delivery: customer-facing employees will likely have ideas on how to remove obstacles to success. Bringing these innovative ideas forward requires engagement on the part of the manager and the employee—and the level of engagement is based on the success of their relationship.
Every agency should explore the degree to which leaders acknowledge, understand, and participate in relationship building. This is not a “nice-to-have” task; effective manager-employee relationships should be an important component of every workplace.
With approximately half the federal workforce nearing retirement age, government agencies are faced with the challenge of determining how to transition knowledge and determine the next generation of leaders. This exercise in organization transition presents a particularly acute problem given a recent Washington Post report that the number of employees under the age of 30 working for the federal government is at the lowest level since 2005. This means that the future leadership of our federal government workforce is just 6.6 percent of the total federal workforce, which is down from 9.1 percent in 2010. In raw numbers, this equals a drop of 45,000 individuals over five years. If even a portion of those lost to public service represent high potential leaders, this is an impactful brain drain. So, what is causing this exodus and what can be done about it?
Recognition. Leaders sometimes fall into the trap of managing projects at the expense of people. I was reminded about this recently while talking to a young woman. In short, she told me she never receives management recognition for the good work she performs—teaching computer skills to people who are resistant to technological change. She sees her job as a daily challenge and said a little appreciation would go a long way. While recognition from a leader would seem to be common sense, agency leadership needs to make it common practice in order to attract, retain, and motivate future generations.
Empowerment. The broad use of computers and mobile devices has created a generation whose work habits are far less tethered to a desk than any generation in the past—just take note of how many people are using laptops at your local coffee shop! Agency leaders need to support millennial tendencies to work remotely and independently.
Targeted Investment. With only so much time and money, any investment of dollars needs to be focused on specific outcomes. A terrific example is the DoD DIUX (Defense Innovation Unit Experimental). DIUX is a full-time outreach office in Silicon Valley that will serve to broaden the Pentagon’s access to new technologies. This innovative approach provides a model for other agencies to follow in promoting public service work that is appealing to the millennial generation.
Knowledge Transfer. Don’t wait—the best and brightest are working on an accelerated schedule when it comes to expected growth and leadership opportunities. Encourage senior leaders to pass along to promising younger workers their views and insights. This knowledge transfer should be targeted to those identified for leadership roles.
Meet the challenge of a looming generational transition head-on by developing actionable solutions that identify future leaders, enable knowledge transfer, and increase leadership capacity. A little bit of extra attention now can greatly improve the position of an agency in the future.
When we hear the word change, there is usually some pause in our thinking as we reflect on the why, when, what, and how of potential impact. This is especially true in a large organization because of the number of people affected and the diversity of views. What can agency leaders do to help individuals embrace and support change? Here are a few key areas to address.
Address the Why: Any change, regardless of complexity or scale, requires sensitivity in addressing the need for change. This should include anticipating questions and concerns about why the change is needed. If leadership cannot come up with a tangible, concise statement about the need for the change, there is likely little value in it.
Consider Impact: It is only normal for individuals to evaluate change through the lens of how it will impact them personally. Achieving buy-in calls for a detailed response to the question What’s in it for me? (WIIFM). Once each person recognizes how the change will impact them as an individual, they can begin to consider the change from a broader point of view. Communication and employee involvement are key before energetic support for change can be realized. Communication could include emails highlighting supporting points, staff discussions, town hall meetings, and focus groups. It is also very useful to involve a cross section of employees in contributing to the design and development of the desired change.
Demonstrate the Value: With an explanation for the change and grass roots buy-in within reach, leadership needs to develop a safe harbor in which to test the change. This test could take the form of a pilot in a specific part of the organization that would illustrate how the change will positively impact the organization. The duration of the pilot would depend on process complexity and degree of perceived change.
Measure, Monitor, and Adjust: Once a desired change strategy has been implemented, it’s important to monitor, measure, and adjust the strategy as required. Measurement can be in the form of qualitative survey or quantitative output measures. In both cases, results should be openly shared with employees so that everyone can objectively observe the positive contribution of the change. Managing with facts and data will secure commitment to current and future changes because it will show a demonstrated desire for positive impact.
Challenges are a reality in any organization facing a change initiative. But transparent communication, employee involvement, and adjusting and measuring impact can go a long way toward calming initial resistance, getting past the pause, and managing the change process.
Got change in your future? Make sure to include these elements in your change strategy to ensure greater success.
Public sector entrepreneurial initiatives serve the public by improving economic prosperity and creating jobs. Many well-known technological advances have their roots in government funded research—global positioning systems (GPS), speech recognition software, lactose-free milk, LED lighting, even the Internet itself—they all owe a portion of their success to government funded agencies.
However, we cannot lose sight of the critical role leadership plays in the successful execution of these ideas—specifically, leadership courage in three forms: going against the grain when necessary; promoting big picture thinking; and doing the right thing.
Going against the Grain: When the Air Force Research Laboratory decided to establish the Entrepreneurial Opportunities Program, leaders had to work through legal and policy challenges to provide an opportunity for sabbatical and spinning off commercial products. This is something we have come to expect from Silicon Valley and universities; however, leadership courage was the key ingredient that provided the passion and drive to do what was best for the public.
Big Picture Thinking: Leadership courage sometimes includes the will to define the future and create organization models that advance public service beyond expectations. This is a key difference between management and leadership. Looking beyond present conditions, formulating a view of the future, and embracing the art of the possible creates the conditions where technology transfer and entrepreneurism in the public sector can occur.
Doing the Right Thing: In this context, leadership courage means moving beyond checking the necessary boxes to thinking about what is missing from the public service equation. This is a leadership trait often associated with change management and it requires a confidence to explain change.
Good leadership leads to empowerment and innovation. It can be defined only when it surfaces in behavior that pulls the agency beyond the norm.
The skills that have enabled public sector innovation and technology transfer can be learned. Such learning is predicated upon a leadership development framework that highlights entrepreneurism as a developmental pillar. Even without an agency focus on technology transfer, an entrepreneurial mindset can enhance the way an agency approaches public service innovation, continuous improvement, and measures of efficacy. Agencies need to find ways to reinforce training and provide for practical applications through coaching or mentoring. This creates a safe harbor environment for trial and error. Our government should leverage the advantages of leadership development to ensure that ideas for technical innovation and technology transfer are brought forward in the spirit of improving public service and economic prosperity.