Federal Coach: IRS commissioner: 'You have to talk to the people on the front line’

Tom Fox speaks with Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen about restoring public confidence in the IRS, his penchant for engaging even his harshest critics and his inclusive leadership philosophy.

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

John Koskinen has held many critical public sector jobs, heading the government’s Y2K effort to avoid federal computer malfunctions during the transition to the millennium and stepping in to rescue government-owned mortgage financer Freddie Mac during the Great Recession. In 2013, Koskinen came out of retirement to take the job of Internal Revenue Service commissioner when the agency was under congressional attack for targeting conservative political groups. Koskinen, who also fended off an impeachment attempt by House Republicans on issues related to the targeting of conservatives, spoke to Tom Fox about restoring public confidence in the IRS, his penchant for engaging even his harshest critics and his inclusive leadership philosophy. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What were your concerns coming to the IRS in the midst of a major crisis?

We needed to restore public confidence after management mistakes that should never have happened. It was important for the public to understand that the IRS employees are a dedicated group of professionals interested in serving the American taxpayer and dedicated to the mission. So I was really trying to get the public to understand we were going to fix this problem and that we have a great workforce that does important work every day.

Can you describe your approach to leadership?

My management philosophy is to listen to what employees have to say. If you want to know what’s going on in an organization, you have to talk to the people on the front line. They have interesting insights or at least problems and concerns they can raise that won’t necessarily make it through several layers of middle management. To run an organization effectively, you have to know what’s going on. And to know what’s going on, you have to reach out to people.

How do you do that in a large organization like the IRS?

I’ve done close to 80 town halls with front line employees and town halls for managers. And people say, “Well, you must hear the same things over and over.” But there has never been one of those where I didn’t learn something new or get reminded about an issue that we thought we had solved.

The other side of that coin is sending an important signal to employees that their insights, their perspectives and their views are important to the successful management and operation of the organization. If employees feel they are part of the solution and involved in decisions, you’ll get employee engagement as a regular matter.

What’s been the biggest leadership lesson you’ve experienced during you career?

When individuals become a manager for the first time, they often think they should have the answers because they are paid to make decisions. And they think strong leadership is reflected in somebody who is in command and control, continually telling people what to do. A long time ago I learned that if you put a group of people around a table, no matter who they are, the group will come up with a better decision than any member of the group, no matter how smart that person is or may think they are. You’ve got to take advantage of the skills and the experience and the perspectives of the people around you.

What are the biggest impediments to getting things done in government?

People often ask me about the difference between managing in the private and public sectors. And I say in general, the challenges are the same. You are trying to recruit, train, organize and lead a group of people to accomplish a mission. But the one difference that’s significant is that in the private sector, you have to do a lot wrong to get into The Washington Post, the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. In the public sector, you don’t have to do very much before somebody is sending letters, issuing news releases or holding a congressional hearing.

What impact does that have?

The net result of that is that people are nervous about taking any risk at all or making any changes. From the congressional perspective, everything should be perfect. And anytime there’s a mistake, there is a call for somebody to be fired or it’s a problem that should never have happened. Managing 100 percent perfection is impossible. But the criticism makes it much harder to energize and motivate a workforce, and Congress inadvertently drives people to the point of thinking the best way to avoid trouble is to do nothing. That can’t be your guiding principle for running an organization.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I actually enjoy meeting with congressmen, particularly congressmen who have been saying nasty things about me. And with an exception or two, the overwhelming majority of congressmen and senators are thoughtful people trying to do what, from their standpoint, seems to be the right things for their constituents. When you talk to them in private, you can have a perfectly constructive conversation.

What do you plan to do once your tenure is over at the IRS?

I flunked retirement twice. I was retired for about six weeks when I was asked by the Bush administration to take on the job at Freddie Mac. I was retired for about a year after Freddie Mac when the IRS scandal hit and I came back to government. There was a flier for a retirement seminar here a few months ago on the subject of: “Mistakes to avoid in retirement.” I was going to write in: “Do not answer the phone.” My term ends in November and my plan is to retire. I plan to do my best not to answer the phone.

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