Leadership Advice: Don’t Ignore Management 101

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I attended an event yesterday evening billed as “What It Takes to Change Government.” Hosted by the Partnership for Public Service, it was the culmination of a nearly two-year research project supported by Booz Allen Hamilton as their public service contribution to the presidential transition effort.

Background.  The report, summarized by the Washington Post’s Joe Davidson in yesterday’s edition, set out to identify the methods and techniques of successful leaders.  The study was led by Harvard’s Steve Kelman, who studied 17 federal leaders, both successful and unsuccessful, to find out what they did different.  In the process, his research team interviewed these leaders.  In addition, they interviewed more than 250 others – public servants, OMB and GAO staffs, congressional staff, and other stakeholders — about these leaders’ performance.  The interview data were used to test 46 hypotheses (based on a review of the management literature) related to political management, leadership and internal capabilities, and strategy development.

Were successful leaders made or born?  Were external factors (e.g., luck) more important than leadership behaviors?  Is leadership more important than management?  See the academic version of the paper! 

What did they find?  The findings were not startling.  They found the basics work.  Successful leaders used similar techniques, and these techniques can be found in any Management 101 course: develop a strategic plan with a small number of goals, work proactively with stakeholders (including employees), use performance measures to assess progress and hold people accountable, and spend time managing your organization. Probably the most counter-intuitive point was:  reorganize when necessary.  Typically, public sector leaders avoid reorganizations because they are so divisive and time-consuming.

Unsuccessful leaders tended to not use these techniques.  For example, they might develop a strategic plan, but not engage employees or stakeholders.  The unanswered (and possibly unanswerable) question is:  if we know what works, why don’t people do it?

The event.  The Partnership event showcased Dr. Kelman and three former leaders interviewed during the project who were judged as “successful,” David Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office, Adm. James Loy, former commandant of the Coast Guard, and Charles Rossetti, former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.   Interestingly, each headed agencies with few or no other political appointees and each had a fixed term of office. 

Each offered their insights on leadership elements, often overlapping with the findings of the report.  For example, Walker cited the importance of strategic planning, employee feedback, customer satisfaction, and quality of work.  Admiral Loy advised to look for people who are “damn good at those thinks you’re not so good at.  Whose opinion you value.  Whose counsel you trust.  Surround yourself, so to speak, with those elements that will not only strengthen your strengths, but strengthen your shortfalls.”

Interesting tidbits.  The report was well-summarized by the news media.  However, here are some interesting highlights from both the report and the event:

  • Successful agency heads had one-tenth the number of political appointees working for them than those judged as unsuccessful.
  • Unsuccessful leaders determined goals without substantial data regarding the external environment, internal capabilities, or the risks they faced.
  • The more time spent outside the agency, the less likely a leader is to succeed.  Successful leaders spent about one-half their time focused within their agency.
  • When using performance measures, unsuccessful leaders most often considered only cost and production.  Successful leaders more often added measures of customer satisfaction and quality, oftentimes based on measures developed outside their agency as a way of adding credibility.
  • Three-quarters of successful agency leaders reorganized their agencies – not because they wanted to do so, but because their agency’s existing structure hindered achieving goals.  For example, Rossetti said IRS had 16 different IT departments.  To create an interoperable IT system, he consolidated them into one.

Want more on the elements of Management 101?  Visit the IBM Center’s transition book on-line:  “The Operator’s Manual for the New Administration!”

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