Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: How to become a great federal leader -- without senior leadership support

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

What suggestions do you have for being an effective leader when you don't have support from your leadership? - Federal manager (GS-15), U.S. Department of Homeland Security

I commend you for wanting to grow as a leader and become more effective so that you can engage your team and have a positive effect on their morale and performance even without the support from other leaders around you.

Back in March, I shared the results of research my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, completed with the Hay Group. We examined the characteristics of innovative federal leaders to determine their common leadership traits. Despite varied backgrounds, agencies and results, these leaders demonstrated great resilience and vision. They were all able to network and collaborate effectively across stovepipes within their agency and across sectors.

Perhaps most relevant to your question, they all built strong, diverse teams with a sense of purpose. Our research found that many of these leaders succeeded despite working with some difficult senior leaders. In fact, they excelled in three areas:

  1. Team Builder - The leaders we studied intentionally composed teams with the optimal mix of skills, abilities and experience to achieve their goals. In government, as a federal manager you're often leading a team that you didn't build. These folks would work with an existing team to maximize their skills and then secure additional team resources by lobbying their senior leaders. If they were unable to hire new staff, these leaders considered creating rotations or developmental assignments to attract the internal resources they needed.
  2. Team Leader - Leaders obviously lead teams, but the exceptional leaders we studied took things a step further. They fostered a shared sense of ownership among everyone on their team by clearly communicating the team's purpose, repeatedly soliciting their ideas, and proactively supporting the team through good times and bad. In a risk-averse culture like our federal government, rank-and-file employees need that support and top-line cover from you to step out of the shadows.
  3. Teacher/Mentor - The very best leaders, whether in government or the private sector, invest in the long-term growth of their teammates. They begin by providing constructive feedback - those tough conversations folks typically avoid - and go on to create opportunities and challenges that force their people to stretch and learn beyond their current capabilities. Our research also found that their work as a teacher/mentor did not end when someone left their team. Rather, these federal leaders continued supporting and building those folks long after their formal supervisory relationship ended.

You most likely already possess some if not all of these skills, and you can simply be more intentional about using them to inspire your team despite the lack of senior leadership support. If you think you may need to grow in an area, do a self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses against the attributes outlined in our report. By doing so, you can then develop targeted next steps for training or finding a mentor who can support your growth in the area that needs improving.

Just remember - you have an incredible opportunity to affect your team's engagement, morale and productivity. Don't let them down despite whatever obstacles you confront. That's your job as a leader.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jun 17, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Fri, Jul 1, 2011

In the civilian community, hiring of recent retire military by virtue of (title/grade) for supervisory positions is definitely a bad call. Retire military are programmed, lack sensitivity, and overreact. Seasoned senior civilians are being overlooked for supervisory position in favor of recent retire military personnel. Retired military does not equal Leadership.

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