Senior Leaders Advised to Adopt an 'Us' Mentality


At a joint meeting this week of the two dozen agencies assigned to improve Americans’ health, a private-sector consultant with years of federal experience told participants that they are “great at admiring the problem.”

But progress on the government’s major challenges will come only when more senior executives recognize the need for an “enterprise” approach based on interagency trust and collaboration, said Ron Sanders, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton who spent years as a personnel specialist in U.S. intelligence agencies.

He spoke with six other experienced agency managers on Wednesday at a Brookings Institution panel marking publication of the book, Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide for Enterprise Leaders. Co-editor Jackson Nickerson, of Brookings’ executive education program, said the guide offers a way to increase the supply of federal enterprise leaders.

“All big problems are ‘inter’ in nature, and usually no one’s in charge, which means everyone’s in charge,” Sanders said, citing as an example the need to beef up cybersecurity in the face of disagreement among multiple agencies even on the definition of the threat. “You can’t always go running to the president,” he said. “In enterprise leadership, there’s no ‘me’ or ‘they,’ there’s ‘us.’ ” The trust that is needed “doesn’t happen through cold calls,” but when leaders have trusting relationships with counterparts in other agencies. Sanders called for a “back to the future” return to interagency sharing of leadership talent, which he described as the original goal of the Senior Executive Service.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, now also at Booz Allen Hamilton, said today’s problems require day-to-day leaders “who might operate in complexity well beyond the purview of any one agency. It puts a premium on collaboration and shared values rather than chain of command. The north star is unity of effort,” Allen said. Solutions “must be co-produced, which includes help from the private sector.”

Allen, a the veteran point man in the federal response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina as well as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, shared lessons from his crisis management approach that required “getting in a room with people who don’t share your background and experience.” During Katrina, the government at first “got the problem wrong -- it was not a hurricane problem but a loss of continuity of government,” Allen said.

He said he regretted not having taken control of the New Orleans airspace on his first day on the scene. “Someone has to declare they’re the leader, like the Blues Brothers saying, ‘We’re on a mission from God,’ Allen joked. “Great leaders are great learners, and they have the ability to reconcile opportunity with competency.”

Allen described meeting in Louisiana with a couple of thousand federal employees demoralized by the public vilification of the government’s response even though he knew they were working hard. “No one had told these people that somebody had their back,” he said, adding that many were in tears. “I ordered them to treat the [hurricane victims] as your own family, and that if you make a mistake, err on the side of doing too much.”

The goal of greater enterprise leadership is both realistic and critical, given the current budget shortfalls, said Stephen Shih, deputy associate director at the Office of Personnel Management. “No single agency has all the resources, and the SES is perfect place to start,” he said.

Shih cautioned, however, that “there is value in respecting agency control of resources, since they’ve invested in executives and getting the right fit. The key is focusing on developing a cadre of executives, some mobile, others in place, but you can have a range in how much they actually deploy.” He said 90 percent of agencies are using a new SES performance appraisal system that allows for enterprise leadership.

Susan Kelly, director of the Defense Department’s Office of Veterans Transition, said equally important to allowing leaders interagency collaboration is “developing those who will follow in their footsteps, pulling them along deliberately and exposing them to the nuts and bolts, not always the pretty side of things.” There is too little emphasis, she added, on publicizing results of successful interagency collaboration. “We don’t have to wait for a government reorganization.”

Laura Craig, senior analyst at the Government Accountability Office, said the problem is “incentives, incentives, incentives.” Citing the 1980s Goldwater-Nichols reforms at the Pentagon aimed at reducing interservice rivalry, she said, “The top-level executives may say support a plan, but the front-line managers could be stuck. There are perverse incentives,” like the fear of job loss, she added. “So there must be carrots and sticks, and we should design the system by thinking of how to make it a win-win.”

James Trinka, executive director of Leading EDGE, the year-old effort by 15 departments led by OPM and the Veterans Affairs Department to boost interagency collaboration, said that “starting interagency approaches at the executive level is way too late,” noting that at Defense, the officers take joint assignments early at mid-career. “The gain from enterprise leadership is networking,” he said. “Leading EDGE tries to foster that notion that if we can do it in a crisis, we can do it every day.”

Turf battles, added Nickerson, can be minimized if by “by collectively formulating the problem together, so that it becomes everyone’s ownership.”

Moderator Elaine C. Kamarck, the Clinton White House veteran now a senior fellow and director of Brookings’ management and leadership initiative, encouraged agency leaders to solve problems without running to the president for help. “The White House has very little capacity,” she said. Despite all the “czars, it has no planes, no trains, no boats, no autos, no drums, no guns. If you wait for the White House to act, the problem will become a big problem."

(Image via Andrey_Popov/

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