A Change Agent Failure

What happens when a manager does it all his way.

Bill Proenza was the National Hurricane Center director who never dealt with a hurricane-at least one created by Mother Nature. His half-year tenure, from January to July 2007, was instead dominated by a storm of his own making. Proenza managed in that short time to publicly embarrass his bosses, alienate his staff and get himself fired. A member of the Senior Executive Service who has since been reinstated in his previous position as head of a National Weather Service regional office, Proenza publicly pushed for a bigger budget for some hurricane center programs. He made his case in the media despite opposition from some of his superiors and subordinates.

For the sake of argument, suppose Proenza's efforts were in the best interest of the hurricane center. Assume he was right to argue for more dollars for hurricane research and for a controversial satellite. Being right wasn't enough. He failed not only to keep his job; he also failed to get the changes he advocated.

It wasn't just Proenza's maverick budget advocacy that doomed him. Much of the hurricane staff also complained to his superiors that he was a poor leader. Their complaints prompted Proenza's bosses to send a management assessment team-led by the deputy director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology-to the center.

"The team concluded that the [hurricane center's] ability to achieve its mission was seriously threatened because of the environment which had been created by the director's statements and actions," the NIST report to Proenza's bosses stated. "The director's actions intimidated some staff and alienated others. Teamwork, essential to the center's hurricane forecasting capabilities, was damaged severely. Some staff were concerned about retaliation for voicing their views."

Many executives in both government and the private sector take on new assignments full of plans for change. Good leaders take their time getting to know their new staff, their ideas for change and the overarching challenges their department faces. If executives have visions for the future, they develop support for them both up and down the chain of command. They incorporate the ideas of subordinates and superiors into their plans.

Proenza acted without taking such inclusionary steps. In testimony to Congress on his way out the door, Proenza said he took office and immediately identified the problems that he exposed in the media. A letter from his boss released at that time showed that Proenza had a habit of acting on his own, without regard for his superior's directions or official policy. On Capitol Hill, he presented himself as a whistleblower who was the target of politics at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the hurricane center. Politics, however, is part of the job for any leader, even when dealing with bosses and employees. Politics is the art of persuasion and influence. A leader who is interested in seeing his vision actually become reality must learn that art. Proenza didn't, and he watched his ideas wash away, along with his job at the hurricane center.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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