Federal Coach

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

Blog archive

Federal Coach: How to be a great boss

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

Linda A. Hill is professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and chair of the university’s Leadership Initiative. Her most recent book is Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives of Becoming a Great Leader. Hill’s consulting and executive education activities include areas such as innovation, change management, leadership development and talent management.

What advice do you have for new federal managers?

The challenge for new managers is understanding you are no longer an individual contributor but responsible for the performance of others. You've got to think about things differently. That transformation of your identity and “unlearning” the individual contributor mindset is what people find most difficult. They underestimate how big the change is going to be. There's a lot more to learn than they think and they feel overwhelmed. Managing your emotions as you work through that, and as you're working through learning what this new job is, while you are also doing the job, is a major piece of the puzzle.

You are in a situation of much more responsibility. There's nothing unusual about what you're going through. It is a journey. You need to figure out how to constructively ask for assistance to get up that learning curve as quickly as possible because others are counting on you. When you don't do a good job it has a negative impact on a whole range of people. Too often, new managers think about the acquisition of competencies as opposed to understanding what they're going to be asked to do. Pay attention to whether people are engaged and feel fulfilled at work, because that's a large piece of what they're looking for from their job. We also need to let go of the myth of formal authority. It’s more effective to think about being in a role of interdependence. People are highly dependent on you being successful so they can get their work done, and you are highly dependent on them for getting your new work done.

What are the characteristics of successful leaders, and how do they maintain focus on continuous learning despite time constraints and competing priorities?

It’s a process of self-development. The way people learn to lead is through their experiences and their relationships. We have this idea of “plan, do, review,” because we see experienced managers take two minutes to do a little bit of reflecting to make sure that they have consolidated the lessons of the experience. They also seek out experiences proactively that will help them learn. One of the misconceptions people have is that learning happens over here and work happens over there. They actually happen at the same time because people are very practical learners. It’s critical to understand that learning and work aren't separate. People need to figure out how to learn as they're doing their daily work. They tend to learn things when they have to.

One of the challenges we face is that the world moves much more quickly now. People have jobs that are much bigger than they used to be because organizations are leaner. People need to proactively take charge of their own development, understanding what they’d like to be, what the organization needs from them and where they are. How are they going to get where they need to be? What sorts of experiences do they need to have and what people do they need to know? How do they proactively begin to do that to prepare themselves so they’ll have the expertise they need to have the kind of impact they want to have?

How should federal managers build and maintain effective networks that are beyond their sphere of influence in the agency?

In my book Being the Boss there are three imperatives. The first is managing yourself. The second is managing the network. The third imperative is managing your team. Often when people think about being the boss or the manager, they think about their own team. But if you don't manage your network, your team cannot be effective. You're not going to know the priorities, capabilities and constraints of your particular agency. More importantly, you won’t be able to match those up with the opportunities and challenges that you face and build a coalition necessary to actually get those things done. Many people think of managing your network as being politics or something they find distasteful, and they don't want to deal with that. The problem is, you will become powerless—and there's nothing worse than working for a powerless boss.

What traits make for an innovative leader?

It's not about setting direction for people to follow. It's about building communities that encourage bottom-up initiative. Those good at leading for innovation answer the question, “Who are we?” more often than, “Where are we going?” The willingness to innovate comes from feeling like you're part of a community with a shared sense of purpose and leads to collaboration with diverse groups across an organization. You want people to understand, "What are we really trying to get done?" A good example is the story of the janitor who's been cleaning in a hospital for years. When someone says to the janitor, "You're a member of the infectious control team,” it gives meaning to that work.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Sep 01, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Tue, Sep 13, 2011 Detroit

I wish the author would have touched on more ideas such as: flexiblity, personal situations in work, don't micro-manage, incentives for good work, and a myramid of other items that reflect that each member of the team has ideas that make them work harder and yet takes into account their personal situations at work and home. Seems as though everything is restricted anymore. Work more with less staff - there comes a breaking point.

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