Federal Coach

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

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Federal Coach: How to get your organization through tough times of change

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

Dr. Rodger Dean Duncan is a business consultant and author of “ Change-friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance .” The book focuses on leadership, human performance and the strategic management of change. Duncan spoke with Tom Fox, who is a guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Why it is so hard for leaders to manage change?

I don’t think people resist change per se, but they resist the stress that change causes. Many leaders are well intended, but they don’t know how to manage the stress. Anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of change initiatives fail to accomplish the strategic objectives that were stated upfront. It’s not because the people aren’t smart, and it’s not because they don’t have change processes in place. What leaders often fail to do is to accommodate the heads, hearts and hopes of their people.

Successful leadership during change requires engagement. You can have satisfied employees, but they may not be engaged in their work. Leaders must use the specific behaviors that enable them to create and maintain an environment where people are genuinely engaged and feel a sense of psychological ownership of their jobs and the organization’s mission. That sounds old fashioned, but when you can create an environment like that, wonderful things can happen.

Tell me about your change-friendly leadership model.

My change model is based on what I call the four Ts: think friendly, talk friendly, trust friendly and team friendly. Think friendly is about helping people get in a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset where people are trapped in the status quo. Then there’s talk friendly. The most effective leaders have a number of common characteristics. One of them is that they not only tolerate feedback, they thrive on feedback, especially feedback that contradicts their viewpoint. Often there are elephants in the room, undiscussables. A talk friendly leader knows how to identify the elephants, teach other people how to identify the elephants and how to tame them.

Then there is trust. When people fail to get somebody really helpful feedback, even if it’s well intended, it harms trust. Flimsy feedback is a trustbuster. Feedback needs to be very specific and given constantly. Finally, being team friendly is all about the very explicit things we all can do to bring teamwork to life. Everybody talks about teamwork, but unfortunately it’s most frequently a slogan rather than an actual practice.

What can federal leaders do to engage their employees?

If I were a manager in an agency of the executive branch, I would focus on — and remind myself — what the mission of the organization is about. Look for ways to add more value and gain more clarity around the mission. Identify fake work. When I say fake work, I’m talking about work that may be perfectly well intended but does not add measurable value to the strategic mission of the organization. It can be anything from meetings that don’t add value to systems and processes that do little more than consume resources.

What would you do to engage career employees if you were a political appointee?

As a political appointee, you just need to understand that some of the folks on your team are going to be thinking, “This too shall pass.” They’ve been through multiple administrations, and they’ve seen a lot of people come and go. The first thing I would do is ask a lot of questions and then really, really listen. What gets in in your way? What’s frustrating to you?  If you could wave a magic wand, what would your work look like? What was it like when you and your team had one of your greatest successes? If you had a friend who applied for a job here, what would you tell him about your workplace? Then listen to people and look for trends and patterns.

Who have been some of your leadership role models?

Years ago, I worked on Wall Street for Ross Perot. He would be the first to say he’s not perfect, and his eccentricities are legendary. But he really had and continues to have a remarkable “can do” attitude. Ross is always somebody who will follow up with action. It never occurred to him that something couldn’t be done. Another early model was Jim Lehrer of PBS television fame. Jim was one of my editors nearly 45 years ago. He taught me always to take a hard look at the gap between aspiration and execution. That’s a good practice for anyone in any kind of endeavor: transform good intentions into great performance.


Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Feb 05, 2013 at 4:02 PM

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