Federal Coach

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

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Preparing for new talent? Leadership lessons from the family stork

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

Any day now, my wife and I are expecting our third child. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a baby, and we’re trying to remember the keys to successfully dealing with an infant. My wife, being much smarter and with a much better memory, remembers all of the “dos” and “don’ts.”

I, on the other hand, have sought help from the experts – my older kids Jack and Ella.

While leading a team is vastly different than leading a family, I’m beginning to see some similarities for senior federal leaders preparing for the entry of new talent. Smart senior managers tap into experienced employees to help.

Just as my kids have the best memories of the things I’m doing well and not as well as a father, those experienced federal employees have the best memories, the best advice for getting things done, and countless lessons learned that could help bring new employees into the fold.

There are many ways to capture and share their knowledge. Here are some ideas to help you get started:

Build a coalition of the willing. You’ll need folks with a deep understanding of the organization who are willing to help compile and memorialize information that can span a variety of issues, including everything from the agency’s history and evolution, its programs, what has worked and what has failed to the internal culture and how to operate successfully within the workplace environment. If you position this as an opportunity to help the organization, and to provide new employees and others with a deeper appreciation of the agency and its mission, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have more help than you actually need.

Let your inner Oprah free. Interviewing your most experienced, high-performing employees is the best place to start. You can build a consistent set of questions that anyone can ask – from specific technical questions to more general topics such as: (1) winning support for new ideas; (2) taking ideas to implementation; (3) the three best pieces of advice you ever received for succeeding in the agency; (4) your best on-the-job professional development experiences; and (5) the best ways of gaining additional responsibility. In fact, I spoke with leaders in one agency at the Department of Health and Human Services that made a habit of capturing employees’ reflections as part of their exit interviews.

Mine for the gold. Not all advice is good advice – the first thing my son Jack wanted to teach our new son was basketball – so you and your team will need to sift through the interviews. Consider scheduling a lunchtime session once a month or once every two weeks when you can sort the good advice from the bad advice, and place them into specific categories that anyone in the agency could recognize.

Share the wealth. Finally, find a place to share the advice you’ve collected. Rather than building an expensive new platform, look at some existing tools: your agency Intranet, online innovation platforms or other avenues for storing and accessing the information.

And of course, this isn’t a field of dreams – you can’t just build it and hope people will come. You also need to draw people to that location. Use agency newsletters and other avenues to share stories and encourage your employees to learn more. Hold brown bag lunches to have discussions with the veterans and new employees, and assign mentors to new employees who can share their insider information in a more informal way.

I know that this may seem like a lot of work, but it will pay dividends over the long term for your new employees and your entire team if experienced employees can share their lessons learned, important insights and institutional knowledge.

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

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