Federal Coach

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

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Federal Coach: Preparing for what the supercommittee has in store for federal agencies

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


The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, often called the Supercommittee, is examining a wide-range of options that could dramatically affect federal employees, such as huge cuts in agency budgets and programs, workforce reductions, extension of the federal employee pay freeze and increased contributions to the retirement system.

As this difficult and tension-filled political process unfolds, many senior leaders across our federal government are busy preparing contingency plans. One leader – Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – recently announced that he will furlough employees rather than shutter regional offices or lay off employees as a result of budget cutbacks. Other agencies are already offering buy-outs and beginning the downsizing process.

As a federal manager in this environment, you are faced with a serious challenge: trying to keep your employees focused and motivated despite the changes coming that may affect them personally and programmatically.

While there is no easy way to deal with the pain and difficult choices that lie ahead, it may be a good time to dust off some of those old books – or discover new ones – about leading change.

Three of my favorites on the topic are: Leading Changeby John Kotter; Influencer: The Power to Change Anythingby Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillian and Al Switzler; and Switch: How to Change When Change is Hardby Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Each book makes for easy, accessible reading, and the Heath brothers have even developed some tools to help readers act on the ideas presented in their book. Here are a few ideas from these books to help you prepare your team for the changes that lie ahead.

· Keep the connection to mission. It can sometimes be hard to keep a line-of-sight between your employees’ work and your agency’s mission when results only become apparent over the long term. Many successful leaders have been able to make a clear and lasting connection to mission through their communication and by setting performance expectations. One of my favorite stories, featured in Influencer, is an anecdote about President Kennedy visiting NASA during the space race and meeting custodial staff. When the president asked one of the custodians about his job, the man replied, “I’m putting a man on the moon.” Given the many challenges confronting our country and your agencies, it’s imperative to remind your employees about the importance of their roles and your agency’s mission.

· Don’t forget about practical matters. In addition to reminding your folks of their mission impact, it’s also important to keep them updated about the situation. Even with all the uncertainty, you can minimize the rumor mill by offering regular updates and maintaining an open-door policy to address individual concerns.

In his book Leading Change, Kotter says that you cannot hold a meeting once and think that everyone’s on board. To help keep your team apprised of the situation, consider dedicating a portion of your regular staff meeting to providing any information you can offer about internal agency planning, as well as a review of legislative activities. You might also consider inviting some of your congressional affairs staff for a brief update. If you’re transparent about what you know and what you don’t know, your team will worry less about might lie ahead.

· Outline the team’s basic direction even before there’s full clarity. It may seem premature, but you should begin laying out the team’s next steps once Congress has made its decisions and your agency begins implementation. A great story from Switch features Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Don Berwick and the incredible work he initiated when he was the president and CEO at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). The IHI challenged hospitals to save 100,000 lives in 18 months by reducing the rate of accidental deaths.

Even as a small nonprofit, they succeeded – in fact exceeded their goals – by making the hospitals a part of the change. To do so, IHI provided hospitals with research, step-by-step instructions and training, as well as networking and mentoring. The lesson learned from this story is that while confronting a still undefined set of changes can be overwhelming, it’s important as a manager to outline some concrete times and venues where your team members can influence and affect your decision making. By doing so, you will help give your employees some measure of control over their futures.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Oct 24, 2011 at 4:02 PM

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