Raising GSA

Business transformation is her specialty, and Martha Johnson is eager to steer her troubled agency on a path to excellence.

Given the recent history of leadership at the General Services Administration, it's almost hard to believe Martha Johnson when she says she danced around her living room upon hearing she had been nominated to head the agency.

"I was utterly thrilled," she says. "It was an exciting moment for me." But why? Why leave a senior position at Computer Sciences Corp., a 95,000-person information technology company, to lead an agency that has had six administrators and acting administrators in the past three years and has not had a confirmed leader since Lurita A. Doan was ousted in 2008 amid allegations she abused her position.

Johnson's two primary reasons seem clear: faith in the Obama administration and faith in herself.

She extols President Obama's ability to motivate senior federal leaders to embrace his agenda without setting excessively narrow measures. And Johnson admires his ability to take the long view, something she says is particularly difficult in government.

Johnson also seems supremely confident in her own abilities and her unique qualification to head GSA. Her résumé reads like a custom order. Since earning her master's degree in business administration at Yale, her work has focused almost entirely on large organizations undergoing major transformations. "I'm an executive, and an executive of large organizations. That is what I do," Johnson says. "I'm not a public policy person, I'm not a program manager, I'm an executive, and I bring that perspective to GSA."

Dream Job

Her foray into organizational transformation began during a stint at a diesel engine plant in New York during the 1980s. The automotive industry was deep into the total quality movement, a management concept aimed at improving processes and customer satisfaction. In about two years, the factory completely changed how it operated, how it related to suppliers, dealt with international customers-everything, according to Johnson. "It was as if I had now gotten a Ph.D. in all this stuff," she says. "It was a tremendous experience in that it was the people themselves coming up with the new ideas once they had a new approach to the way the assembly line would work." There are many parallels between the total quality movement of the 1980s and the Obama administration's attempts to streamline government services and improve how agencies interact with their customers, the taxpayers.

After joining GSA in 1996 as chief of staff during the Clinton administration, Johnson became involved in yet another major transformation. Congress had just passed the Clinger-Cohen Act, designed to improve how the federal government acquired and used information technology. The law marked a drastic change in the way GSA marketed contractors' goods and services to agencies. "We went from a company store to an option, a choice," Johnson says. "They could use us, or they could go down the street to Home Depot. It really led us to a value-driven mentality. We can't just go for low price; we have to go for the best value and show people we can do it best."

Johnson notes "kind of hilarious" parallels between her work in the private sector and GSA's mission as government's supplier of equipment and office space. For example, she has a certification in inventory management and once worked at an architecture firm. And as vice president at Fairfax, Va.-based technology firm SRA International Inc. and then at CSC, Johnson promoted culture change and facilitation through social media tools-also among Obama's primary objectives.

"It's a terrific match for me. It was kind of the dream job in that sense," she says.

Few, if any, administrators in recent years have viewed the position with such relish. Since the White House asked for Doan's resignation following public feuds with GSA's inspector general and the U.S. Special Counsel and accusations that she violated the Hatch Act, the administrator title has been passed around like a hot potato.

"Walking in as the confirmed leader of the organization had this sort of feel that I just showed up and it was useful, just being confirmed was useful," Johnson says. She describes the turmoil at the top as "really confusing to the organization," saying it forced employees to focus exclusively on operations at the expense of strategic perspective.

In the Spotlight

Long a quiet federal workhorse, GSA has a leading role in some of the Obama administration's most pressing priorities. The Recovery Act pressed the agency to kick construction and energy efficiency projects into high gear. GSA also was on point for myriad open government initiatives, hosting public websites such as Data.gov and USASpending.gov, which track federal purchases and contracts. And as the federal government's main buyer, GSA drives a sweeping acquisition reform agenda.

With its plate already full, the General Services Administration received another heaping serving of mandates when, on Oct. 5, 2009, the president signed the Executive Order on Federal Sustainability. The memo directed agencies to cut greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent by 2020, boost energy efficiency at facilities and reduce the federal fleet's petroleum consumption. GSA is one of the leads on these initiatives. Soon after the order was issued, Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, wrote in the panel's blog that achieving the president's goals would equate to taking 17 million cars off the road for a year.

But Johnson wanted to take things a step further. In September, she announced the long-term goal of completely eliminating GSA's environmental footprint. She says the huge agenda was "jaw-dropping for GSA," given its historical support role. But it gave her organization the direction it needed. "I was really handed a way in which I can say, 'Here I am kids, they finally confirmed me, and boy do we have some work to do.' I could just move forward without a lot of hand-wringing," she says.

According to Johnson, GSA is in a unique position to lead agencies and industry toward a stronger environmental standard. "GSA was really hungry for a big challenge, so as a leadership team we said, 'Let's go for zero environmental footprint,' " she says. "If we don't, the government couldn't even dream of getting there. If we do head in that direction, we can have a huge impact across the government."

There is no question that, in pursuit of this lofty goal, GSA will make mistakes. But Johnson says failure is an inevitable part of innovation, and GSA is the perfect agency to absorb and manage minor failures from a strategic perspective. "We have very broad shoulders, and it's important for us to make those little experiments rather than for the government to wildly walk into this sort of thing and make big mistakes," she says. "We have to learn to take risks, and perhaps fail, but fail fast, fail forward and fail fruitfully."

The agency's environmental goal also fits in with the larger challenge of tackling government waste and spending taxpayer dollars as wisely as possible. "Pursuing zero environmental footprint is a cool, up-to-date way of saying no waste," Johnson says. "You're using everything well, that goes to the notion of value and it also goes to the notion of using the taxpayer dollar really, really appropriately. It makes us effective and efficient in a higher order way."

The Zen of Change

It's improbable that any organization could take on such major challenges without changing the way it does business. This is perhaps the tallest order for Johnson, whose management style seems simultaneously subtle and radical. At the heart of her leadership philosophy is a rejection of the "great man on top" theory, in which an omniscient leader issues directives from on high. In the age of social media, Johnson says that strategy "just doesn't work anymore." "People can be in connection with each other now in a way that we always used to control in our silos," she says. "With information technology, everyone shares everyone's ideas. Leading as if you're controlling doesn't work; it's just sheer arrogance to think you can."

Nowadays, Johnson says leaders should act like magnets, drawing their employees in one direction like iron filings. To make the force strong enough, she notes, chief executives must not only set goals, but a sweeping vision as well. It requires saying, "I trust you. You're a grown-up and I'm a grown-up, and we have huge, important work to do. And I'm not going to nibble at you by fussing about the B items, I want to talk about the A items, and I want to be working on that because it'll pull through a lot of other change," she adds.

One of Johnson's favorite management tools is the "slam," in which the boss gathers all the folks responsible for making a particular decision into one room, closes the door and directs them to solve the problem.

Slams can help overcome what Johnson sees as one of the biggest problems in government-no one is empowered to make a decision alone. "You make a decision, then you have to tell 15 people and they have to tell 15 more, and you have to articulate it all over the place," she says. "I believe you need to be right next to the people making those decisions in real time so you don't stall on making the decisions collectively."

Johnson envisions using this strategy more and more, particularly as it becomes easier to conduct slams online. "That's where my dreams come true and we can do more collaborative online events, problem-solving efforts, and people will know I'm there because they see me putting my comments in and they feel leadership is with them."

But are the stereotypical bureaucrats digging in? Johnson says no, although it might appear that way sometimes. "Yes, people can be set back on their heels by change coming around the bend-it is a combination of they're not feeling skilled about what they're going to be going forward, or they don't understand what they're going to be doing going forward, or they just don't feel in the loop-and sometimes they just need to process things," she says. "We see it as resistance, but a lot of times it's just people processing it and talking through it."

And leadership needs to be there during the discussions, Johnson says, noting that being "in the mix, elbow to elbow," takes away a lot of the anxiety about change. And attitude matters. "You can't be onerous and tedious and bear the weight of change," she says. "You have to give it a little bit of a lift. It gets into the Zen of change. It's about being spirited."

One way Johnson spreads her message to all employees and be part of their conversations about big changes is through blogging. "I can talk to the whole organization at any time. The blog is my way of doing it right now. But you have to be visible and you have to show that you can write in the moment, that you're conveying ideas right now, not conveying an idea that you spent three weeks arguing about being allowed to say," she says. "It has to be your voice, your thoughts, your ideas. I think that's one of my signature leadership qualities. I pay a lot of attention to the language I use and the messages I send out."

Most important, Johnson says, is making people understand why a change is happening: "The bigger the reason, the more you're going to get people excited rather than hanging on to what they know."

And the current agenda certainly offers reason after reason after reason.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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