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A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

How I Lead: Listen, Breathe and Then Ask Questions

Melanie Keller is associate director for management at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, the largest center at the Food and Drug Administration. As the executive officer, she oversees administrative operations and a $1 billion annual budget. She also directs the human capital management of more than 4,500 employees and is leading recruitment strategies for nearly 800 vacancies at the center. 

How did you get to where you are today?

I moved up the career ladder quite rapidly because of focus and determination. I started as a GS-5 secretary and am now in the Senior Executive Service. That didn’t happen by just putting in my time. Education and experience were essential. For 12 years I went to school part time and worked full time for the government to obtain my undergraduate degree and later my master’s in business administration. I kept a continual focus on my education. I also took opportunities that others didn’t want to in order to gain new and differing experiences. I volunteered to take minutes for an Intramural advisory board when I worked at the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute. Many of my co-workers considered the task to ...

How to Tap Military Experience for Executive Jobs

It’s a tough reality, but many men and women who have served our county have a difficult time finding jobs as they integrate into the civilian workforce. According to the Labor Department, the unemployment rate for veterans is 6 percent and 650,000 are jobless. As a veteran myself, these statistics are a hard pill to swallow. Often veterans are more than qualified to obtain employment because their military leadership experience can set them apart.  Veterans are typically characterized as team players who are most often appreciated for their organizational skills, highly developed sense of ethics and ability to remain calm under pressure.

To overcome this unfortunate employment hurdle, the Leveraging Military Leadership Program offers executive coaches and talent management experts to help transitioning veterans communicate and apply their leadership skills to the civilian sector. The effort is led by the Exelis Action Corps, the corporate volunteer service program of aerospace company Exelis, in partnership with talent consultancy Korn Ferry and the nonprofit organization Points of Light. 

The Leveraging Military Leadership Program is a free four-month development program that helps recent military veterans obtain top civilian leadership positions. Veterans of any rank who have left service within the last ...

How to Break Up the Old Boys’ Club in Your Office

Once upon a time, the workplace was very homogeneous. With women’s place in the home, and little ethnic diversity, the workplace was dominated by white men. And their judgments, styles and perspectives created the workplace culture and narrative that we still experience today. The Old Boys’ Club is where business gets done. The network where the unwritten rules define the insiders and the outsiders. The standards that decide who is successful and who is not.

But today, when 36% of the US workforce is already multicultural, and 47% are women, the composition of employees looks different than it used to. So why should we still play by the rules and expectations of the Old Boys’ Club?

Recognizing leadership potential

What do you think of when you think about a leader? Strong, direct, confident, aggressive, powerful and charismatic in a take-no-prisoners environment? But Lina, a brilliant, high-performing Japanese American, is physically diminutive and speaks with a high-pitched lilting up-tone. She thoughtfully leads through consensus and is powerfully influential through her indirect communication and wide networks. She builds loyalty and commitment in her teams. Lina will be passed over this year for an expected high-level promotion and assignment. Why? It’s ...

Supervisors Hold the Keys to the New World Order

A common thread that runs through the new civil service report from the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton, is the vital importance of managers and supervisors. Research tells us they have more impact on an organization’s success than any other factor. Leaders define the mission and develop the operational strategy, but it’s middle managers and supervisors who have the day-to-day responsibility for making it happen. The report’s recommendations depend squarely on a capable, responsible cadre of managers.

Research over more than two decades confirms that when employees are empowered—one book uses the word “unleashed”—to capitalize on their abilities, they are capable of performing at significantly higher levels. That is especially true for knowledge workers. Managers hold the keys to creating a work environment where those workers can thrive.

Government operations across virtually every agency depend on knowledge workers. There will always be offices devoted to routine production work (e.g., processing claims or paying benefits). But in the future, employees will be confronted by increasingly complex problems that require innovative solutions.

In his column “Damn the Org Chart,” retired federal executive Henry Romero makes the point that the hierarchical, top-down, close control ...

The Reality of How We Focus

When you really focus your attention on something, you’re said to be “in the present moment.” But a new piece of research suggests that the “present moment” is actually a chunk of the recent past, and it’s about 15 seconds long.

Jason Fischer of the University of California at Berkeley, the lead author of the study (paywall), said he wanted to know how our perception changes as we shift our attention from one thing to another. For example, how does your brain process the motion of the annoying housefly buzzing around your kitchen, as opposed to its companion you’ll be swatting next?

His research, published with his co-author David Whitney, suggests that when we focus on something, the image we perceive isn’t a snapshot of it at that moment, but rather a sort of composite—a product mostly of what we’re seeing now, but also influenced by what we’ve been seeing for the previous 15 seconds or so. They call this ephemeral boundary the “continuity field”, and it could explain a lot about how we pay attention.

Fischer and Whitney devised a battery of experiments that showed them how our brains build miniature narratives ...