Federal Coach

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

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Training a new generation of special agents

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

B. Todd Jones, a former Marine and U.S. attorney, was confirmed last July as the first permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in seven years. He was appointed as acting director two years earlier in the wake of the agency’s mishandled gun-trafficking operation involving Mexican drug cartels. Jones spoke about his goals for the agency with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I went into the Marine Corps after law school, and I draw on the core values that the Marine Corps instills in you that are very relevant to leading people and organizations. Those are simple, fundamental concepts like courage and integrity, being engaged and exercising good judgment, and having bearing or the military’s command presence. That has to be tempered with confidence in what you’re doing, being knowledgeable about your organization’s history and its culture, and being mission oriented.  ATF is a new experience for me because most of my non-Marine Corps experience has been as a prosecutor. I truly believe in ATF’s mission of public safety and justice, and that makes it easy for me to apply these leadership traits and principles.

What is your basic message to ATF employees?

ATF has a very rich culture and history. For more than 100 years, we have taken on some very difficult missions. Today we are a law enforcement agency with important regulatory functions in the firearms and explosives industries. The core mission at the heart of both our law enforcement and regulatory functions is public safety. We have some tough responsibilities: combating violent firearm, arson and explosives crimes, while at the same time regulating industries whose legitimate products are sought by criminals for diversion to the illicit markets that too often fuel those violent crimes.

In fulfilling these responsibilities, we must always be mindful of the constitutional rights of individual citizens, without being swayed by the political debates that swirl around us. My philosophy, and the one that I try to instill upstream and down, is apolitical—stay focused on the public safety mission and accomplish that mission through application of the fundamentals, each and every day.

Tell me about your management perspective.

In the military, there are occasions where it’s less important to listen to everyone’s opinion because it’s more of a command-and-control environment. In the public sector, particularly when you are talking about morale, you have to be a very good listener, place value on diverse opinions and sell instead of tell. As a leader, you have to be engaged with employees and maintain a level of empathy and understanding about the impact decisions have on them. It’s also about being engaged in a way that’s not just about moving widgets from point A to point B, pushing out regulations, or  generating statistics about how many people we arrest. These are valuable lessons that I hope will bring this organization forward.

How are you rebuilding your workforce and recruiting the next generation of agents?

Unfortunately, in recent years there has been lack of foresight with respect to ATF’s human capital. This has created an immediate challenge with respect to our special agent community. In the next five years, the attrition rate among our special agents is going to increase to roughly 40 percent. This pool of agents represents areas of expertise unique in federal law enforcement—unmatched proficiency in firearm and arson investigations, and specialized skill in the investigation of criminal explosives incidents.

One of my most important missions here is to ensure that we maintain and nurture this essential law enforcement expertise. We are in the process of trying to replace our retiring agents with new hires. This gives us an opportunity to bring in really talented candidates. Our challenge in this budget environment is to allow enough time for new agents to be trained by their predecessors. People can get formal training, but there is also a need for on-the-job training, in which practical expertise is passed from one generation of agents to the next.

Another challenge we have is maintaining sufficient levels of staffing and expertise among our inspection and support personnel. These positions also require strong analytical skill and specialized training that must be consistently developed over time. For the past 10 years, we haven’t done a good job of looking to the future and ensuring we have a sufficient amount of people in all job series to ensure that we function at the high level our public safety mission demands.

How have budget cuts, various controversies and congressional scrutiny affected employee morale?

When I first arrived here two years ago, there was some controversy regarding firearms trafficking across the Southwest border. Morale was down and people were feeling under siege. One of the things I have learned about this organization is that the people here are extremely resilient in terms of overcoming obstacles. They have a lot of pride it their work and have a true commitment to the mission. These people don’t do their job for the pay but for the cause, and people will put up with a lot if they feel they are making a difference and serving the citizens well.

One of the things I took great pains to do despite the budget situation was to get out to all 25 field offices. I strive not to be a leader who’s ensconced in headquarters in Washington. It’s beneficial to the organization to have the director come to their location and listen to their concerns, be an advocate, on occasion defend the people of the organization from unfair perceptions and allegations, and keep people focused on the common mission.

View Photo Gallery —These memoirs, research books, biographies and how-to guides made it onto On Leadership’s bookshelf this year.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jan 20, 2014 at 4:02 PM

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