Credit: Shutterstock/Adam Gregor
January is that time of year when we make New Year’s resolutions for our personal and professional lives.
In addition, this is the month in which many newly elected officials are taking over the reins of state and local governments for the next four years. New management teams with specific agendas are arriving all over the country with plans for innovative programs, government reorganizations and a hopeful future for citizens.
As we start this year, how do you prioritize what you do as a leader and the actions to take? Whether you are a new government leader or a long-time civil servant, what works best to bring lasting success and a positive legacy in your government organization - and most of all with the people on your team?
We all know that every project involves people, process and technology – but the hardest part is always with the people. One industry expert once told me that in his 20+ years of managing complex nationwide government projects over 90% of the challenges and opportunities comes with culture change – and that starts with the staff outside your door.
Here are some of the questions that I typically ask myself about work at least annually in a few different categories:
Professional Goals: What are my team’s professional goals for the New Year? Which projects went right, and wrong, last year? How can I personally grow in my professional roles (for example: reading specific books, attend a certain training, write an article, etc.)?
Operational Management: When should I intervene in priority projects? Who needs new help and/or additional resources? What deliverables, metrics and outcomes will I use to gauge progress?
Ethics, Integrity & Building Trust: How can I better model integrity, a caring attitude, innovative thinking and high expectations for my team? What breakfast and lunch meetings can help build stronger relationships? How can I reward my team members – given available tools and restraints?
Time Management: Remembering the 80/20 rule, what can I stop doing now – in order to spend more time doing other things? When (and where) do I need to practice “management by walking around?”
Vision: What “outside the box” ideas do we need to implement? What objective or deliverable in my area of expertise would be a national best-practice if we could achieve it this year? How can I work backwards to build a plan to make that happen? How can I complete such goals from last year?
For some, these questions probably seem simplistic, but for others this list may seem daunting. If you’re not careful, the analysis can become unwieldy paralysis and start to look more like an offsite management meeting to build your enterprise’s strategic plan. No one wants that extra complexity.
However, this blog is intended to be more personal and help you achieve success in your government leadership role as we begin this new cycle.
Background on Leadership Philosophy & Approach
Before we dive deeper, you may be wondering: How did I arrive at this list? For over seventeen years in Michigan State Government I held leadership roles, with responsibility for award-winning technology and business teams ranging in size from around 30 staff to over 800 – plus contractors. I have also worked for one Democratic and two Republican Governors, and I have seen transitions between parties. In my view, these topics are nonpartisan. Prior to that, I led private sector technology teams with ManTech in England.
More important than that, this approach is informed by the incredible mentors I’ve been blessed to know, books I’ve read and diverse work experiences in the public sector. As for book examples to help: I highly recommend a few classic like Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and John Maxwell’s Leadership 101.
Over the years, I learned (the hard way) that both new government leaders and savvy government veterans with years of experience can ignore the people side of government management. (In fact, I had this blind spot myself for several years.) The focus can be so driven by external results, that building an organization that is successful in the long-term is the last thing on the minds of management. Near-term technology results or process improvements become paramount, but the people are often forgotten.
I have seen government leaders jump from job to job after specific projects are completed with minimal awareness of their lack of culture change or lasting impact with their teams. Oftentimes, processes and outcomes revert back to traditional norms, unless people issues are properly addressed.
Seven Leadership Resolutions to Act Upon
As we answer the questions listed in the categories above, it helps to develop theme areas. Each of us needs to create our own resolutions and own the actions. Nevertheless, here is the list of my professional resolutions that serve me well, which are largely borrowed from other experts:
1) Build the right team - Surround yourself with the excellent people who not only have the right skills and know the business, but share your values and passion for excellence and results.
Tip: There are lots of books and articles about making sure you have the right people on the bus before you get going. This piece by Jim Collins, who wrote Good to Great, is one article to closely examine on this point.
2) Take care of your staff – Once the right team is in place, take care of them. Reward accomplishments and have fun in the process. This sounds easy, but can be especially difficult in a government context. Take personal responsibility to use every tool available to help your team members achieve professional success. This includes doing the necessary paperwork for promotions, bonuses and more. Celebrate accomplishments and recognize professional achievements on a personal basis.
Tip: Plan to celebrate now. Pick local sports events (such as March Madness basketball viewing of local teams), birthdays, picnics or pot-lucks for any reason.
3) Start planning with a blank sheet of paper (again) – No doubt, you come into this year with plenty of tasks on your plate, projects to deliver, and maybe even a full calendar that goes through March Madness. But take some time to clear the schedule and think about what projects truly need to be done by your group and why – starting from nothing. In accounting, this approach is called zero-based budgeting. This management approach may help to free up time and allow you to stop doing some tasks this year. Going through this exercise with your direct reports helps bring about ownership and support for others on the team.
Tip: If a blank sheet is too hard, consider challenging your team to take three tasks off and adding two for the coming new year.
4) Ask: Does that project have a charter? For any project that will take a “meaningful amount” of time, make sure that clear objectives, metrics and deliverables are documented in a project charter. Who is doing what tasks? Make sure that appropriate staff and financial resources are allocated.
Tip: New leaders should build a plan to show what they will accomplish in their first 100 days – and deliver! Include some low-hanging fruit and easy wins.
5) Do lunch (and a few breakfasts, dinners and coffee chats as well) - Building better relationships & professional trust with your management, peers and subordinates is always high on the new year “to do” list, but these visits easily get crowded out of busy schedules. However, building relationships that outlast inevitable bad news is a must! There is no better way than over food and drink.
Tip: Ask how home life is going, where appropriate, but really care – or don’t ask.
Don’t forget to include customers, lower-level staff and even a few naysayers on the lunch schedule to provide balance. Seek to understand more than to be heard.
6) Expect (and plan for) the unexpected. Ask: What could go wrong? Are we ready if it does? In the technology and security world, bad news (such as outages or data breaches or other emergencies) can define your legacy if you are not careful, so make sure you are prepared for the worst. You will have unexpected incidents, so get ready and plan for them now.
Nevertheless, you can turn “lemons into lemonade,” Well-prepared execs can propel their careers when the going gets tough and the lights of attention are turned on your function. My role in cybersecurity and emergency management was actually helped by the Blackout of 2003 because we were prepared and responded well as a team.
Tip: In non-technical areas, check to ensure that your business continuity plans (BCP) are up to date for various emergency scenarios. Practice with emergency management exercises.
7) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – Every survey I have seen for 30 years has communication as the #1 problem for both public and private sector organizations.
How can you improve your messaging to employees, customers, executives or others? Are you getting a clear message out? What is the feedback? Consider: Public speaking, social media, internal and external blogging, walking around and more. Strive to improve how you communicate this year in practical ways.
Tip: Consider a “road show” to address key customers with plans and discussion topics when you are ready.
As you look at this list, it can be tempting to think that this process is a one-time deal (or maybe every 2-4 years). But I think not.
Each of these items need attention and refinement, and my preference is to take a new look at where things stand in these categories (at least) annually. Just because you were successful last year – doesn’t automatically mean things will prosper this year.
I’ll leave you with this well-known quote from Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
One remedy: Maybe you need to do lunch with your team.