If a call for change comes from the ranks, does it really make a sound?
Mid-level managers have many ideas for improving their agencies. They have been around long enough to understand their organizations but not long enough to have risen to a position of significant power, where they could easily implement those ideas for change. So they dream of working for a Jack Welch-style leader, someone who would recognize their great ideas, embrace them and use them to transform their agency.
The Jack Welches of the world have long encouraged senior executives in the private and public sectors to mine their workforces for great ideas. But many federal middle managers say they feel like no one's listening to them, that there's no Jack Welch where they work and their ideas are going to suffer a slow, bureaucratic death. If only those in the Senior Executive Service would listen to me, the GS-14 management analyst thinks, this place would be the best agency in government.
Such thoughts are also popular among the young 30-something public administration graduates who have been hired by agencies in the past five years, since the end of federal downsizing. They look up their chains of command only to see calcified baby boomers standing in the way of the Generation X ideas that would sweep away all the red tape and usher in an era of smart, efficient government. They've got ideas, too, but no one is listening.
What mid-level managers and the rising Gen-Xers want is executives who will recognize that there are leaders at all levels in their agencies. There are people with ideas for change who, given some authority, could really make a positive difference in the way their agencies operate. But no one listens.
The despair that rises from the ranks of the government workforce might call out for executives who are better listeners and more willing to delegate authority. But if mid-level feds want to be recognized as leaders, then they must act like leaders too. Leaders are measured by results. If you have a great idea and it hasn't gone anywhere, then you have to ask yourself why. What do you need to do to turn that idea into an action that leads to a result? How can you manage up and get the people above you in the chain of command to see the wisdom of your ways? Why should your boss embrace your idea and not the 50 others he has heard this week? Everyone has colleagues with ideas that are really bad. Why isn't yours one of those?
That doesn't mean there aren't great ideas that, unfortunately, do meet a bureaucratic death because of a bad boss. That does happen, and at some agencies it happens too often. But the complaint from many mid-level feds that they are not heard has the ring of whining. Ideas do become action and results throughout government all the time. If an idea is not going anywhere, don't just blame the boss. Evaluate the idea and the methods used to promote it. That's what a leader does, at any level.