Federal Coach

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

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Federal Coach: Inside HUD's efforts to improve employee morale

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

Nani Coloretti is the deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), managing the day-to-day operations of an organization with a $45 billion annual budget and about 8,000 employees. Prior to joining HUD, Coloretti was the assistant secretary for management at the Department of the Treasury.

Coloretti spoke about efforts to improve workplace morale and employee engagement at HUD during an interview with Tom Fox.

HUD has traditionally fared poorly on the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. Why has this been the case?

One factor is that employees have been asked to do more with fewer resources and without additional staff. But Secretary Julián Castro and I made a conscious effort to find ways to operate with the resources we have, and to support our workers even more by asking employees every chance we get to give us their ideas on how to make HUD a better place to work. And then we follow up on those ideas.

HUD was the most improved mid-size department in this year’s Best Places to Work rankings. Can you give me an example of what you did to boost how employees they feel about their jobs and the workplace?

We improved communication with the workforce and took action based on employee feedback. We used a couple of collaboration tools, including one we call Switchboard where employees can submit their ideas to improve how we do business and they can vote on them.

We also have a social tool that is like an internal Facebook platform. I put out questions on that site to try to get answers back on how to improve the way we do our work. We have been using those platforms and in-person conversations in regional and field offices to put together a strategy to make things better, even if it is a small thing like putting a refrigerator in a room where women who are just coming back from maternity leave can store their breast milk—or bigger things like putting together efforts around succession planning and a candidate development program for Senior Executive Service.

What other initiatives have been instituted?

One of the biggest pain points for people at HUD—and, I would probably argue, across the federal space—is hiring. And so we brought in Toyota to help us figure out what was taking so long in our hiring process. The new hiring plan is just getting approval to start. Our hiring process used to be 84 days and will now be 12 days.

Some HUD leaders offered incentives for employees to take the workplace survey. Could you explain why this occurred?

We did not centrally encourage people to do any kind of incentive program. We used several tools and some data tracking to figure out how to increase participation. We focused heavily on messaging and communication. We learned in the early days of the federal employee survey that, across government, the response rate is a little bit under 1 percent of the workforce every day. We noticed that there would be a spike in responses on days that we sent out messages, whether from the secretary, myself or other senior managers in the agency. So we sent out messages two and sometimes three times a week, and we noticed that every time we did that, we got about 2 percent of the workforce responding.

We also really pounded on the process of just doing the survey. Each employee gets an individualized e-mail with a survey link. In our messages, we included information telling employees how to locate that link. We also made sure that everybody knew that participation was anonymous. And we made sure people knew that we at the senior level were going to review the data and use it in multiple ways to build a stronger HUD.

What do you plan for 2016 to build on this progress?

We are going to continue to do really robust employee engagement planning, centering on making sure people feel connected to the work and that they can make a difference. We are continuing to solicit ideas, looking for ways to improve leadership and how we operate.

On a more personal basis, if I were to talk to people at HUD who know you well, what would they say about you and your leadership style?

I made a lot of my staff take the Gallup survey known as Strength Finder. It is a list of 34 strengths, and I think people would say that my number one strength is called “woo,” which stands for “winning others over.”

Do you have anything on your desk that has personal significance?

I have a little stone on my desk that says “change.” Sometimes when I’m feeling stuck, it reminds me to actually see another way—that change is not a bad thing and don’t be afraid of it.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jan 26, 2016 at 12:59 PM

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
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Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
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