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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Moving Beyond Strategy

Too many leaders spend far too much time on how they could change their strategy, or on trying to assemble the perfect team. As important as these factors are, the greatest opportunity for most leaders lies in better executing their current strategy with their current team members. It might be time to evaluate how your agency or team could operate at a much higher performance level.

Government leaders face more challenges than ever. From fighting terrorism to managing health care reform and the economic recovery, the federal government has taken on broad new roles and responsibilities, and that's translating into expanded missions at many agencies, increased job responsibilities for many federal employees, and a greater need for high-performing teams and strong leaders.

From our experience in working with and training successful leaders in both the public and private sectors, there are a few key things you can do to improve your agency or team's chance of success -- while becoming a more effective leader yourself. And the payoff can be significant.

The Navy for example, partnered with Franklin Covey Co. and achieved dramatic results when it focused on executing goals. One Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, saw the following results during a one-year period from 2007 to 2008:

  • Alcohol-related incidents fell to 54 from 116;
  • Administrative punishments dropped to 185 from 256;
  • Attrition rate decreased to 2 percent from 9.2 percent;
  • Met the Navy's highest retention goals for two consecutive periods;
  • Improved overall physical fitness ratings by one category;
  • Quadrupled the number of sailors enrolled in continuing education courses.

Leaders on the Lincoln proved that it is possible to operate a carrier at war while developing and improving the lives of thousands of sailors. Anything is possible when everyone sees themselves as a leader and understands the goals. The following are some tips for improving execution:

Define success. One of the first things that a leader must do -- and something only he or she can do -- is to spell out objectives. In our experience, the best leaders think big and consider all their stakeholders, including managers, employees, constituents and the community. What is the success measure that will mean something to them? If your team is aware of a mission or project's end goal, then the members will be better able to embrace and work toward it. As obvious as that sounds, there are very few teams where all members know the exact outcomes that will define success and are collectively committed to achieving them.

Take stock. Another critical step is to honestly assess how close you are to achieving your goals by doing a gap analysis. What does "great" look like, where is your team already great, and where is it falling short? A clear understanding of where you have to beef up performance provides you with the basis for defining the new and different behaviors required of your team. It's important for your team to agree on these behaviors.

Strive for consistency. Of course, every organization has pockets of greatness, but the difference between great and lesser performers is great performers have a higher percentage of their units working at a top level. The way to broaden your pocket of greatness is to engage the team to achieve more consistency and institutionalize the behaviors you want. You do this by paying attention to the right things -- every day. For example, in its quest to improve the cost, quality and schedule of maintaining its F-18 aircraft, the Navy's Fleet Readiness Center Southeast standardized work processes to enhance efficiency and remove barriers to success. As a result, it achieved a 77 percent productivity increase from 2006 to 2007 and was able to build seven additional planes. Cost savings exceeded $500,000 per aircraft. Other entities within the Navy now have adopted the standardized processes, which will help to optimize the success already achieved. When pockets of greatness develop inside any organization, they eventually influence other departments and divisions, helping the entire organization to become more effective and successful.

Hold team members accountable. Strong leaders hold accountability sessions several times a day, taking the opportunity to briefly meet and assess how things are going. They don't wait for a weekly meeting. And they bring others into the process, asking team members to hold each other responsible for engaging in the behaviors required to reach the group's objectives. Employees can coach each other on the spot and adjust behaviors immediately. They talk as a team. They help each other. Most people, if given the chance, want to work toward an achievable goal and want to be associated with a great team.

Build trust. A team must know that its leader is both competent and possesses good character. Showing your team members you care about them as people, listening to their ideas and recognizing them for their contributions will go a long way in building trust and cohesiveness. In our experience, the government often is much better at this than the private sector because federal employees typically are mission-oriented and have a desire to serve the public. The best leaders already have learned how to win loyalty and build trust, often reducing personnel turnover in the process.

With budgets growing tighter and an increasing emphasis on efficiency, improving execution will become more important than ever. So ask yourself, which of the above factors would most help your team or your agency to significantly enhance its results. Take a step back and evaluate if you've got success clearly defined, if your team members know the behaviors expected of them, and if there is support and accountability. And think about focusing a bit less on fiddling with your long-term strategy and concentrate more on those daily accomplishments that will drive your current strategy.

Jerry Ice is chief executive officer of the Graduate School, the largest provider of training and education serving the federal community. Bob Whitman is CEO of Franklin Covey, a global consulting and training leader in the areas of strategy execution, leadership, customer loyalty, sales performance, school transformation and individual effectiveness.

Dr. Jerry Ice, CEO , ... ]

Jerry Ice, Ed.D., is CEO and President of Graduate School USA, formerly the Graduate School, USDA. Based in Washington, DC, with eight field training sites around the U.S., Graduate School USA is a full-service, nonprofit, continuing education training and academic institution. It provides classes, certificate programs, degree programs, and other offerings in subjects ranging from governmental accounting and auditing, human capital management, and acquisition to foreign languages, economics, and leadership development. For more information, visit

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