Ken Miller recently posted a column to governing.com about effective leadership from city directors. To read it in its entirely, click here.
The following is a synopsis:
Below are my eight best ideas to help you make the difference I know you want to make.
1. Check your assumptions.
Your beliefs will drive your behaviors. People often perform to the expectations we have of them. If you think your workers are lazy and untrustworthy, they will prove you right. If instead you view them as passionate and talented, they will prove you right as well. Granted, you will have a few bad apples. You will have the guy who takes the state car to the strip bar. You will have the niece of the previous governor’s barber running one of the biggest divisions you have. But these are the exceptions. The rest of your workforce is phenomenal.
2. Honor the past. For some of you, your appearance on the scene might be heralded like the fall of Saddam. The employees will be pounding the portraits of the previous director with their shoes and weeping with joy that the oppressive regime is over. You’re lucky: Anything you do will be better than the last guy. Many others of you, however, will likely be replacing someone the organization cherished. Some new directors let this get under their skin. They rip down all the old posters, bury past initiatives and denigrate the accomplishments of their predecessor. They rename every council or group and immediately distrust those from the prior inner circle. Don’t do this. It makes you look small. The organization needs time to grieve.
3. It’s not so much what you say, but what you do. If you stay in the office until 7 p.m., you will soon notice that more and more people start staying until 7:00 as well. Is this what you want? If so, congratulations. If not, then let people know: “I expect you to be home with your family for dinner.” Do you park in a special parking space? How big is your office? One of the coolest things I ever saw a new director do was downsize his office. It sent a clear message to everyone, that this job was a calling, not an ego trip.
4. Do the work. Our beliefs drive our behaviors, but where do our beliefs come from? Our point of view. To change beliefs, we have to change our perspective. The best way to do that is to view the organization from bottom up. You will learn more from spending time on the front lines, doing the mission work of the agency, than you ever will in all your senior staff meetings. For your first 90 days, devote an hour a day to go somewhere in the organization and learn someone’s job. Spend time in the phone center listening to calls. Ride around with the child protective workers and the parole officers. Listen to the engineers as they debate designs. It is important that you use these precious moments to listen and learn, not to “create buy-in.” Learn how to do the work, and most importantly, learn what system constraints are impacting employees’ performance. Are there policies, procedures or technology that need to be changed to help them out?
5. Spend time with your customers. I don’t mean legislators, lobbyists and interest groups. (You’ll hear plenty from them regardless.) Rather, actively seek the input and experience of those who use your agency’s widgets. Again, our perspective drives our beliefs. In addition to viewing the agency from the bottom up, you need to see it from the outside in. My team was once brought in to help overhaul a state tax agency. One of the best things we ever did was to conduct focus groups with actual taxpayers, having them compute and file their own taxes in front of our senior managers. What an eye-opening (and potentially violent) experience!
6. Focus on the mission. It will be easy to get distracted by IT, HR, legal and procurement. They will place enormous demands on your time and money. Do not let them trick you into thinking that they are why the agency exists. I have seen countless senior staff meetings where the agenda is dominated by HR, facilities and IT. Ten division heads around the table, and only two of them do the mission work of the agency. The two divisions that do the actual work of the agency end up serving the other eight — who are supposed to be supporting them. This is upside down.
7. Frame the puzzle for the organization. As I wrote in an earlier piece, good leaders don’t show up with all the answers. Rather, they lead with great questions. It is not your job to solve all of the problems. Your job is to make sure the organization is solving the right problems or scaling the right mountain. You provide direction and priorities. You frame the puzzles; they move the pieces. People love to solve puzzles — Sudoku, crosswords and jigsaws. And they solve those puzzles for the sheer challenge and satisfaction that accomplishment brings. You won’t have to motivate them.
8. Find a good change agent. What separates truly excellent organizations from the ordinary ones? What allows some organizations to rapidly change and continually reinvent themselves while others have trouble making even modest improvements? The fundamental ingredient is the presence of change agents. Change agents are individuals who have the knowledge, skills and tools to help organizations create radical improvement. Rarely in a position of authority, they achieve results instead through their keen ability to facilitate groups of people, through well-defined processes, to develop, organize and sell new ideas — to solve the puzzles you have framed. They are the invisible hands that turn vision into action. They are a leader’s best friend. Your division heads are there to manage your organization. The change agent is there to help you change the organization. They help make it happen, whatever it is going to be.
Our government agencies need leaders — good leaders. Men and women with large expectations and small egos. Men and women who ask big questions and rise above small answers. Men and women who see the good and inspire it become great. I thank you for being that person.