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

The Key to High Performance


Research has confirmed that managers have more impact on an organization’s performance than any other factor. Actually it’s their effectiveness in the supervisory role that influences an employee’s performance. A great analogy is the coach of a winning football team. The supervisory role is of course important at all levels of management. 

The role in other sectors is evolving rapidly. Employers increasingly are turning away from the traditional make-employees-do-as-they-are-told approach to focusing on getting the best out of everyone. 

The Spring issue of the Merit Systems Protection Board’s Issues of Merit defines the traditional role well:

“Supervisors and managers play a critical role in ensuring that agencies accomplish their missions and meet the needs of the constituents they serve.  . . .a supervisor’s primary responsibility is to accomplish work through others.  Therefore, leadership skills are critical to a supervisor’s ability to plan work, communicate organizational goals and policies, guide performance, and make difficult decisions about employee recruitment, retention, development and appraisal.”

There is nothing wrong with their description; it fits a traditional organization well. I had a graduate course in organization planning in the 1970s. In class we discussed the importance of job descriptions, span of control, hierarchical structures, accountability, etc. Organizations and work processes then were static for months, even years. The supervisor’s job was straightforward: Keep the operation running.

But all of that began to change with the 1990-1991 recession. To be competitive in world markets, companies concluded their cost structure was too high. They eliminated layers of management along with inefficient, bureaucratic practices. Concurrently they decentralized decision making to make their organizations more responsive to customers and world markets. And a few years later “knowledge jobs” became a front burner concern. 

The changes in the organization and management of work since then have been ongoing.  Technology has facilitated the changes but people are still responsible for decision making.

Creating Great Managers

When the Senior Executive Service was formed in 1978, none of this was anticipated. I was managing a consulting practice in Manhattan and in 1980 had a contract to examine the role of agency heads in New York State government. We looked at the highest level jobs in government across the United States. Thinking about the project today, managers below the highest levels were completely ignored.

With all the more recent arguments about pay and the need to recruit and retain qualified knowledge workers, and the continuing interest in overhauling the SES, managers once again are being forgotten.  Their importance has never been recognized by government but their impact is a missing key.

The problem is compounded in federal agencies by the diversity of work settings. The supervisor role of managers can vary tremendously even within a single department. Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, Interior, Agriculture and other departments are made up of very different agencies and bureaus.

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There are to be certain important commonalities but managers and supervisors need to believe the HR policies and systems that affect them are credible and reflect the priorities of their jobs. Job incumbents always know what’s working and what needs to change. When those policies are not credible, it negates any possible value.

The best approach for rethinking the manager’s job is to ask the people they supervise what they look for in an effective manager. When Google did that a few years ago, their HR office learned technical expertise was the least important of eight characteristics. The first two were being an effective coach and empowering the work team. 

The list for federal employees could be quite different, with variations in each agency. Again the sports team analogy is useful. It would be ludicrous to use the same performance criteria for baseball and football. When the same criteria are used for obviously dissimilar jobs, the discussions between supervisors and their people are more difficult and awkward. Working as a supervisor in a prison clearly involves different behavioral skills and approach to supervision than their counterparts in the U.S. Attorney’s office, even though both work for the Justice Department. Using the sports analogy, coaching a quarterback obviously should focus on the job’s specific requirements.

As with Google, the answers should be used in selecting and promoting new supervisors, training and coaching supervisors, evaluating their performance, and when combined with an assessment of goal achievement, it becomes a broadly credible basis for recognizing and rewarding the best managers.

The direct cost of those group discussions is minimal but it can be expected to contribute to better working relationships, enhanced job satisfaction for both supervisors and employees, and improved performance.

The MSPB column noted that the selection of new managers is still commonly based on technical expertise. There are jokes about that practice. The employer loses a solid performer and adds an ineffective supervisor. For the employee, the new job is stressful and often not as satisfying.

Government needs to do better. Businesses identify future managers and executive early in their careers and invest in their development. Government will never have great executives until it invests in developing great managers.

It’s Time to Empower Employees

Not surprisingly, there are no books advocating bureaucracy. In today’s rapidly changing world, any practice that impedes an effective response should be eliminated. Employees are unnecessarily restricted by archaic policies in what they can do. That cascades down from the highest levels.

It is a deeply entrenched culture that discourages innovation and initiative. It taints government’s image and discourages job seekers. People want jobs that offer support for their development, recognition for accomplishments, and opportunities to demonstrate their abilities.

High performance is possible only when employees know they are expected to tackle problems and encouraged to use their capabilities. It’s often surprising what individuals achieve on their own. That’s the message of “get the best out of people.” 

But it’s impossible when jobs and their incumbents are constrained and where there is a lack of trust.  Where that exists, it adversely influences working relationships. Supervisors define what employees can and cannot do. For government to solve its performance problems, supervisors—the coaches—should be a higher priority.

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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