By Shawn Zeller
April 13, 2005Are good leaders made or are they born?
Increasingly, that's the dilemma in government, where 75 percent of top civil service executives are older than 50 and nearly half are over 55. Soon they'll retire and will have to be replaced.
But budget constraints have taken a toll on the leadership pipeline. Training regimens have frayed and, with them, efforts to develop new leaders. Hiring, too, has proved inconsistent, sparking concern that government is failing to recruit the best talent.
The battles over pay for performance at the Defense and Homeland Security departments have brought into the open concerns about leadership in government. Union advocates say that few in the rank and file trust their managers to evaluate their work.
Defining good management and discovering how to inculcate it is the next great challenge for civil service reformers, says Claudia Cross, chief human capital officer at the Energy Department. "We are not really focusing on training people and getting people ready to be effective leaders and managers," she says. "The problems agencies are having can be tied back to that lack of focus."
In a survey of senior executives, Government Executive sought out those who exemplify leadership. We found that leaders can thrive with different styles. But there are some core characteristics that they all seem to share: a propensity for hard work, love for the job and concern for employees' professional development.
SHARING A VISION
It's hard to put a number on what Rose Crum-Johnson has done for the American taxpayer. As manager of one of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' two satellite offices devoted to fighting fraud, she's identified more than $500 million in bad payments.
Crum-Johnson, who became Atlanta regional administrator in 1997, was given unprecedented authority to head up efforts to rein in fraud in Medicaid, the government's health care program for low-income citizens. She helped devise the California Medicare/Medicaid Data Exchange Pilot Project, which used data mining tools to identify patterns of fraud across Medicare and Medicaid. After one year, the program recovered $37 million and it's since been expanded to eight more states.
Ironically, Crum-Johnson isn't the tough cop you would expect to find among CMS' top fraud busters. The 59-year-old thinks of herself as a vision setter who benefits from her staff's strong performance.
Her job, she says, is to "articulate a vision" and then trust the staff to follow through. "If you are adjudicating an issue from a provider, I say, 'Look to what we say we are about.' If you do that, I will support you."
She sets standards and expects employees to measure up. She also doesn't allow superior performance to go unrecognized. "You have to empower staff, you have to hold them accountable, you have to reward them," she says. Agency leaders have made the most of Crum-Johnson's nurturing manner. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when she worked at the Social Security Administration, officials put her in charge of handling the agency's efforts to aid the families of 16 employees who died, and to assist staff members as they moved into new offices and resumed operations.
Growing up in small-town Alabama, Crum-Johnson remembers, it was a grade school teacher who made the biggest difference in her subsequent professional life. The teacher picked her out from the group and made it clear how much promise she saw in her. Crum-Johnson started out as a claims representative for the Social Security Administration, where again she benefited from a mentor, before moving into the management ranks. Her last position with SSA was deputy regional commissioner in Dallas.
She joined CMS-then the Health Care Financing Administration-in 1995. Crum-Johnson is keenly aware that mentoring can sometimes be viewed as favoring. The answer, she says, is to always seek volunteers for special projects. The go-getters on a staff then emerge. She makes a point of recruiting and encouraging new employees. "I believe leaders are, or at least should be, the best recruiters for your organization," she says. "In the way I behave, I should be attracting people to the organization every time I am out on the stump."
Still, an employee must be able to take constructive criticism, she says. "I tell people, 'A mentor is not a crutch and not a substitute for individual effort. You have to bring something to that relationship: a positive attitude and a strong belief in yourself. The mentor is the icing on the cake.'"
TRUSTING THE TROOPS
Once a month at midnight, Rich Allen is locked inside the Agriculture Department building where he works in Washington.
The phones and e-mail are shut down. The windows are sealed. No one is allowed in or out. Allen can't leave until 8:30 a.m. Through the night, Allen, 63, and his colleagues crunch numbers and draft a report detailing their best estimates of corn, the United States. The numbers they come up with can roil financial markets worldwide, so their integrity is sacrosanct.
Allen has upheld that upright culture and passed it on to new agriculture statisticians. For 42 years, he's toiled for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, most recently as deputy administrator for programs and products and chairman of the Agricultural Statistics Board. He joined the Senior Executive Service in 1982.
In 2003, he was the first recipient of the Jeanne E. Griffith Mentoring Award, named in honor of a longtime manager at the National Center for Education Statistics. In Allen's view, mentoring is less about taking younger employees under your wing than about trusting them and having the patience to allow them to grow into their jobs.
It's a trait he learned early in his career, when he was assigned to a frustrated manager, who for years had been left outside the agency's inner circle. "He decided if he ever had anyone reporting to him, he was going to make sure they had something to do, and something to call their own," Allen says.
He was allowed to expand his expertise in everything the statistical service does. That's a philosophy that he carried on as he rose through the management ranks. "We have a culture where people advance by trying different things," he says.
For years, Allen oversaw the agency council that handled hiring for its top positions. He took on the role of advocate, making sure the best possible case was presented for each applicant. He sought consensus among the other council members over whom to choose, but more important, he recalls, was his effort to ensure that each candidate who was not chosen received feedback and encouragement.
When employees stick their necks out-by applying for another job or by coming to him with a question-Allen says that as a manager he has to support that initiative. "I often say that no one in NAAS does anything by themselves. Everyone has to work together."
A QUIET FORCE
To be an IITP at the Defense Department is unusual. For Margaret Myers, a senior executive there and principal director in the Office of the Deputy Chief Information Officer, that has proved a challenge. In the vernacular of the Myers-Briggs personality test, most of her colleagues are ESTJs. They are extroverted. They are detail-oriented and they make decisions quickly. She's the opposite: an introvert who sees the big picture, but is reluctant to make snap decisions.
Even so, Myers is "a woman succeeding in a man's world," says Diane Disney, who could say the same thing about herself, having served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy. Myers has thrived not only at Defense, but in the world of information technology as well, Disney says. The two worked together in the late 1990s on a massive effort to revamp human resources systems throughout the department.
The key, says Myers, is her sustained effort to know herself and to compensate for her weaknesses. During nearly 30 years of government service, Myers, 54, has taken the Myers-Briggs test, often used in professional development settings, on several occasions. "It was the biggest eyeopener for me," she says. "You assume all people are kind of alike."
In reality, Myers-Briggs -- devised during World War II by a mother-daughter team -- hypothesizes that people can vary substantially in their personality traits. The test breaks down personalities into four categories. People who are IITP-introverted, intuitive, thinkers and perceivers- make up less than 1 percent of the population. The ESTJs she works with are extroverted, sensors, thinkers and judgers. Early in her career, Myers found that she often didn't provide employees with enough positive feedback. "An introvert tends to think, 'You know you did good, because I would have told you if you screwed up.' What I learned is that I had to personally make an effort," she says.
In 1992, when Myers was attending training for new senior executives, she underwent a peer review. Former colleagues said she sometimes appeared to withhold information. "It goes back to the introvert," she says. "I'm not necessarily going to sit down and say, 'Well, have you heard about whatever?' " After the review, Myers resolved to tell peers and subordinates clearly that her door was open and she welcomed questions.
Throughout her career, Myers has analyzed the effectiveness of Army computer and weapons systems. She's been the stern analyst at milestone reviews, where she often had to inform program managers that their initiatives weren't working. Nowadays, Myers has the equally tough job of convincing Defense managers to facilitate the sharing of information. It's a long-term project that requires the shy executive to write articles, speak at conferences and network with hundreds of stakeholders.
But Myers has won the trust of her superiors by learning about herself. "I will never be an extrovert. I will never enjoy going to parties," she says. But she's learned to compensate for her instinctual weaknesses. Myers is the first to admit that it's not easy. But, she says, "I've done it long enough that it's more or less natural."
Just days before a January snowstorm in Washington, Louis Uccellini was in his element. Around his offices at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, it was a 24-hour-a-day operation. Meteorologists were reviewing satellite data.
Supercomputers were whirring, processing 1.3 trillion computations per second. The result, they found, was nothing too extraordinary. Washington got only a few inches. But for a man who's co-written a book about snowfall, Northeast Snowstorms recently published by the American Meteorological Society, they are always fun. Uccellini doesn't do the forecasting himself anymore, but oversees the national centers' nine forecasting offices.
To be a leader, it helps to love what you do. Enthusiasm is infectious. Listening to Uccellini is a bit like listening to a grammar school student fascinated with his science fair project.
"Everything you read, see and hear about weather starts in this building," he says. "We do everything from the sun to the sea." Local weather forecasters rely on his team's data, as do government agencies.
Uccellini is a leader who motivates by example, who inspires by going full steam, who combats cynicism by exuding his enthusiasm for the weather. He's worked for the national centers since 1989, when he joined SES, and with the government since 1978. He earned a 1977 doctorate in meteorology from the University of Wisconsin and worked at NASA before moving to the centers, a division of the National Weather Service.
Uccellini has won the respect of his staff by ensuring that they have state-of-the-art equipment to do their jobs. Greg Mandt, a colleague at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says Uccellini is the "best scientific manager I have met. . . . He is a recognized scientific expert in his discipline and -- this is what makes him unusual -- he can deliver big projects."
At the centers, for example, Uccellini has procured the best computers in the world by leasing them from IBM rather than buying them, as they once did. There was never enough money to keep up with the state of the art, forcing the agency to make do with substandard technology for years at a time. Now the agency gets new computers every year and a half.
Uccellini, 56, has worked with other agencies that use the same technology, both in analyzing data and buying new satellites. In doing so, he's nearly doubled the life cycle of a new satellite, from two years to four. Now, with the assistance of researchers at other agencies, the centers can cull useful data from a new satellite in one year, as opposed to the standard three.
But Uccellini is most proud of his efforts to secure a better work environment for his scientists. They are based in Camp Springs, Md., surrounded by car dealerships. "It's not conducive to bringing the best scientists from all over the world" to work here, he says. But thanks to Uccellini, the agency will move in 2008 to a new facility near the University of Maryland in College Park.
Uccellini's mantra is "vision, plan and follow through." The last, he admits, is the hardest. By setting an ambitious vision, "you increase the sense of risk" and start asking, "Do I really have to do all five of these things? Do I have enough money? Can I get it all done?" But he's found that the model works, at least when you're dealing with ambitious scientists. "If they see that you are honest, they come to trust you," he says.
PUSHING THE GOAL
In the mid-1970s, Jeffrey Neely was swimming for the Army. While many of his fellow soldiers were doing training drills, Neely was racing and coaching a competitive military swim team in Germany. The swimmers traveled to bases in Europe and raced against other teams.
Neely was so good that, as a teen, some wanted him to try out for the Olympics. He even raced against nine-time gold medal winner Mark Spitz, though he admits that Spitz won by a wide margin.
Neely remembers his decision not to pursue that goal as a formative moment. "I learned to be successful," he recalls. "It has to be about what you want, not what others want you to do."
He enjoyed swimming but knew he didn't have the passion to pursue it full time. But Neely's ability to set priorities as an athlete, he says, has informed his drive at the General Services Administration.
Neely joined GSA in 1978, after leaving the Army. He set his sights on a goal: become an assistant regional administrator, one of the top civil service positions at the agency.
Now 50, Neely achieved his goal in 2003, when he joined the Senior Executive Service and was appointed assistant regional administrator for GSA's Public Buildings Service in San Francisco. In that post, he's responsible for 35 million square feet of federally owned and leased real estate in Arizona, California, Nevada, Hawaii and the Pacific territories.
Foremost on his mind at the moment: building a $400 million courthouse in Los Angeles.
"I knew I wanted that job, and I set myself to doing that by working in lots of different places," says Neely. "Intentionally, I got myself into lots of different pieces of PBS, because I knew I would need that experience."
Part of being a leader is knowing your work better than anyone else. It's about making the life sacrifices to get you there, sacrifices that win respect because others are unwilling to make them. Neely, for example, has spent years working in GSA outposts: San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; Honolulu; Reno, Nev.; and the agency's Washington headquarters.
"He excelled in every job," says Carl Votteler, a lead program analyst with GSA's Office of National Customer Services Management.
Neely is a tireless traveler, regularly visiting his 550 employees. "I want folks to be sure I'm interested in what they are doing. . . . I think you rise up in the ranks when you can create energy in a group of people," he says.
By Shawn Zeller
April 13, 2005