Leadership Lessons: Patrick Gallagher, National Institute of Standards and Technology

Suzanne Glassman

This is the fourth in a series of profiles based on interviews for the book Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) by Paul R. Lawrence and Mark A. Abramson, which highlights the management lessons of 24 political executives during their first 18 months in the Obama administration.

Patrick Gallagher brought an inside perspective to his role as director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the agency's only political appointee. After 15 years as a career scientist at NIST, Gallagher knew the agency was in need of a better management structure for its mission of promoting U.S. innovation, and advancing scientific metrics and technology. Even before his appointment in 2009, Gallagher had begun to set the stage for organizational change as acting director.

His experience at NIST offers three leadership lessons for all government executives looking to realign their agencies for the future.

Lesson One: Reorganize When Necessary

The conventional wisdom is to avoid reorganization whenever possible. Upon assuming leadership at NIST, Gallagher came to the opposite conclusion. "I knew that the agency had to be better organized and more effective," he recalls. "I wanted to improve the stability of NIST. I thought it was unstable with a single presidential appointee and a single deputy director. The previous NIST management structure had upwards of 18 line organizations all reporting to the director or deputy director. In addition, NIST is like a national laboratory in many ways, but it wasn't organized that way. The director of NIST was like a weak mayor. It wasn't working. We needed to remap the organization and we needed to improve customer service."

The plan required approval from the Commerce Department, NIST's parent agency, and congressional appropriations committees. Reorganization is a cumbersome and lengthy process that usually discourages leaders from undertaking such efforts. But Gallagher made it a top priority for NIST. "The organization was supportive of the change," he says. "It had been talked about for years and there was general recognition that the time had come to make the change. In the private sector, you can just come up with a plan, announce it and then do it. Government is different. You need to invite participation. I shared our reorganization plan and met with NIST managers to discuss the reorganization. I invited everybody to comment on the plan. Things moved pretty quickly after this. I did learn the importance of engaging people on reorganizations. Nobody likes to be surprised. My rule was no surprises and we engaged people on it -- including Congress, which was very supportive."

Lesson Two: Focus on Alignment and Mission

The reorganization was not just an add-on for Gallagher. It was central to his strategy to change NIST's culture and to strengthen the organization to survive the fast pace of change in the 21st century. "The reorganization was never just about organizational structure or who reports to whom. It wasn't about boxes," he says. "It was about getting the organization better aligned. We wanted to get the right people and align them in the new organization. Alignment was our larger goal. We need to reset the agency."

The management agenda involved moving away from an activity-based structure for the agency's laboratories, which were organized like a university. "In that structure, our managers acted much like chairs of academic departments," Gallagher recalls. "We wanted to move toward a mission approach. Our historic mission is the metric system, and we needed to align our activities with the mission."

The mission focus and reorganization were part of Gallagher's goal to make NIST a better workplace and to enhance the agency's image among federal agencies and the research community. "NIST is a very special place," he says. "Researchers at NIST like their work and their mission. I wanted to restore the old sense of mission that [NIST's predecessor] the National Bureau of Standards had. Our efforts have brought more visibility to the organization."

Lesson Three: Always Be Prepared to Change

In the summer of 2011, Gallagher started work on two scenarios for the future -- one focused on growth, the other on retrenchment. Resources likely will become tighter for NIST and government's other science organizations. "I've never managed in such a changing environment," he says. "Two years ago, everything was on the upswing. Our budget was increasing, and innovation was receiving a lot of attention. That turned out to be a snapshot in time. It's hard to set direction when there is so much uncertainty." While all federal agencies will face the same uncertainty, Gallagher is convinced that NIST is better positioned to face that future, given the organizational and cultural changes that have taken place during the past two years.

Paul R. Lawrence is a principal at Ernst & Young LLP (paul.lawrence@ey.com). Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. (mark.abramson@thoughtleadershipinc.com).

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