Federal Coach

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

Blog archive

Federal Coach: What it's like to be the architect of the Capitol

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

As architect of the Capitol, Stephen Ayers oversees 2,300 employees responsible for the maintenance and operation of the historic U.S. Capitol Building, the House and Senate office buildings, the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In this interview, Ayers discussed the importance of having “crucial conversations” with his leadership team, and how he uses meetings as a management tool. His conversation with Tom Fox has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What leadership issues are you focusing on within your organization?

We can always work on better communicating expectations, providing feedback and coaching. In my organization, we’re going through a program about how to have crucial conversations with one another. It’s a real skill that takes time and effort to develop, and it’s something that needs to be practiced.

A second one is the ability to "get on the balcony." Most of my leaders are architects and engineers, and we are problem-solvers. We’re often quick in doing that. But an important skill for a leader is to observe what’s happening to get the big picture, and then reengage—then pull yourself back out and reengage again.

What is the best career advice you ever received?

I always reflect back to my father, who said to me, “You can expect what you inspect.” I never really understood that as a young man. Now I appreciate that when I ask someone to do something, I should have no expectation that they will do it—or that they will do it correctly—if I don’t inspect it along the way.

That philosophy has led to us to establish a very broad set of performance metrics, and I mean broad. We measure a lot here at the Capitol. We measure things so we can track, manage and understand them along the way. It’s really been transformational over the course of the last eight to 10 years.

If you could change anything when it comes to your staff, what would it be?

If I could get 100 percent engagement from 100 percent of our employees 100 percent of the time, boy, what we could be capable of! It’s all about engagement, focus and productivity. If I could move the needle on those, I think we could really make some headway.

Sometimes the best lessons come from mistakes you have made. Was there a mistake that has made you a better leader?

The most important thing for me is to hire and retain the right people. As I reflect back on my 30 years, I have hired the wrong people once or twice. Early on, that probably was exacerbated by not letting go of the wrong people fast enough, even when I knew it wasn’t going to work out. The leadership lesson for me is when I know it’s not a good fit, I need to be decisive and not let it linger too long.

What is your favorite book?

My staff will tell you I talk about two books all the time. The first is Good to Great by Jim Collins, in which the very basic concept is that good is the enemy of great. The second one is The New Gold Standard, by Joseph Michelli. He says that if your customer asks, you’ve already failed.

What are your best time-management tips?

I work a lot, and I do my work primarily through meetings. That sounds cumbersome and horrible to some people, but it’s not uncommon for me to have 10 meetings a day.

Secondly, this may not be a time-management tip, but I think it is most important to under-promise and over-deliver. That has really been transformational for my organization. Our core business is delivering construction and renovation projects. If we’re a day early, we’re the heroes. If we’re a day late, we have completely failed. If you can build your reputation for doing what you say you’re going to do, it’s priceless.

If you could have any job, what would it be?

It would be fabulous if I could get paid for playing golf. I was home last evening and my wife and I were watching TV, and one of those travel shows was on. I imagined being a TV host on a travel show where people pay you to travel to these glorious places around the world. That would be fabulous too.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

My job requires me to be an extrovert. But, in fact, I’m an introvert. I think most people don’t know that. I get my energy, creativity and curiosity from quiet time and reflection, as opposed to an extrovert who might get those from other things.

What’s the one thing you’d like to be remembered for accomplishing?

I’m in a very public job. There have only been 11 of us in our history in this great city, and often people ask me what my legacy will be. My philosophy is that my job is to empower and enable other people to succeed. If I can be remembered for helping others succeed by empowering and motivating them, that would make me incredibly proud.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on May 27, 2015 at 1:26 PM

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