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

Tough Times

Downsizing is not without consequences. The anticipated staffing cuts will expose a core problem that has no immediate solution: Many managers are not ready for what could unfold. Understaffed operations lead to demoralized workforces. Buyouts and early outs deplete institutional knowledge. And voluntary turnover is highest among the best qualified employees with marketable skills. No one knows how serious the hemorrhaging will be, but in every situation managers will be expected to keep the ship afloat.

This scenario would be grim in any organization. Unfortunately, the federal government does not have a record of producing effective managers. Agencies tend to recruit for technical knowledge and skills, and generally do not attract graduates committed to careers in management. And in midcareer, there is too little emphasis on transitioning supervisors from the technical work that led to their success.

People Skills

Years ago after a long day of meetings on pay reform at the Federal Executive Institute, an Office of Personnel Management official and I joked about the need for a new job series -- manager. Our tongue-in-cheek plan was to recruit people from business schools, provide relevant training and coaching, assign jobs to develop needed skills, fast track the careers of high potentials, and reward high performers.

I have to admit -- alcohol was involved. In a more serious conversation a few weeks ago, a National Security Personnel System transition team leader pointed out that the switch from senior specialist to supervisor should, in fact, be defined as a new career. Supervisors sometimes see management as an add-on to their technical responsibilities, but they should be selected and promoted based on leadership potential. There are a lot of good people working as managers who would be more satisfied and productive if they had continued in a technical career ladder, the NSPS official observed.

This is true for many in federal executive positions. It is compounded by the backgrounds of many political appointees who have little previous leadership experience. There are more role models in industry.

The Google Test

The challenge is not limited to government. Google recently made headlines for its internal study on what characteristics employees wanted in a boss. The results surprised company leaders. Employees wanted managers with good people skills and ranked the importance of technical expertise dead last. A Google human resources executive noted, "Our best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier -- they do everything better."

The idea is similar to asking employees to rate their manager but is focused on the ideal, not individuals. Managers who are aware they need to improve might find such a survey threatening, but, of course, they should. This approach, however, does not create tension between managers and their people.

Google now uses the results of these analyses in the selection, training and evaluation of managers' performance. The message is that people skills are central to a manager's career success. Nothing prevents government from undertaking similar studies.

Managers have more impact on the performance of an organization than senior executives, according to recent article by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Managers are key to employees' sense of commitment, and committed employees consistently perform at significantly higher levels.

The best-selling book First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (Simon & Schuster, 1999) by Gallup consultants Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, stated the case very effectively:

"An employee may join Disney or GE or Time Warner because she is lured by their generous benefits package and their reputation for valuing employees. But it is her relationship with her immediate supervisor that will determine how long she stays and how productive she is while she is there . . . employees don't put their faith in the myth of 'great companies' or 'great leaders.' For employees, there are only managers: great ones, poor ones and many in between."

Research shows that managers, prior to the recession, were the No. 1 reason people quit. Seemingly endless blogs focus on the problems employees have with their supervisors.

Management First

Downsizing should be used as an opportunity. In a recent report, "The Campaign for High Performance Government," Paul Light, a professor at New York University, discussed a number of recommendations to reform government. Two focused on reducing the layers of management as well as the number of GS-13 to 15 managers and professionals.

That would open the door to a new generation of managers. In a flattened organization managers and employees both will have greater autonomy and broader responsibility. Studies similar to Google's could serve to rethink the strategies to organize and staff these positions.

Adopting best practices from the private sector, performance systems for managers should focus on a combination of expected results and the competencies associated with the best in class.

In his report, Light recommended replacing the General Schedule with a pay-for-performance system in which the most competent managers would rise through the ranks. Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, reinforced the need for a new pay program in his column "A Smarter Way on Federal Pay" in The Washington Post.

Financial rewards send a powerful message about priorities and would serve here to reinforce the importance of developing the skills associated with great managers.

There are no quick fixes. As the first step in developing new performance systems, the Google approach is a straightforward way to define the model for tomorrow's supervisors and managers. That will provide a basis for identifying the most effective leaders and developing strategies to retain them. Available bonus funds should be used to recognize and reward those who truly stand out.

Howard Risher, a pay and performance management consultant, managed studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act. He is the author of Planning Wage and Salary Programs (WorldatWork Press, 2009) and other books.


Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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