This is part of a series of Q&As with notable leaders across government where we explore what it takes to succeed in federal service. If you have a suggestion for a future candidate, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Leader" in the subject line.
Brian Fox oversees development activity in support of The National Map, a collaborative effort of federal, state and local partners to support scientific analysis and emergency response. It is a cornerstone of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Geospatial Program. Prior to that, he supported the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in a variety of roles. Fox recently shared with Government Executive some lessons he’s learned on management and leadership.
1. What motivates you to get up every morning and go to work?
Working for the federal government gives me an opportunity to serve the American public. Sometimes I like to joke that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” but it’s true! I have focused throughout my career, regardless of agency or department, on serving and helping in whatever my role. Being helpful and of service is what motivates me on a daily basis.
2. What’s your favorite interview question when hiring, and why?
“We’ve selected a small group of excellent candidates to interview. Why should we hire you among all the possible candidates?” I love giving and getting this question in an interview, as it allows the candidate to cut right to the chase and provide the differentiating factor they bring, whether skills, experience, education, and describe how that will benefit your team. This question allows you, the interviewer, to get a real sense of how much they’ve meditated on what your organization is doing, and how they’ll fit in and help it succeed.
3. Who was your most effective boss, and what made him or her stand out?
Wow. Great question, and a tough one to answer, as I’ve had some great bosses, and some not so great bosses. To answer this in the most optimistic way, the best bosses followed some simple rules of motivation: autonomy and development of expertise. Specifically, they trusted me, and gave me the freedom to do what needed to be done, regardless of my role in the organization. This autonomy allowed me the freedom to not necessarily wait for their orders, but rather chase opportunities and solve challenges that I saw immediately in front of me. Enabling my autonomy not only made me feel better, it allowed them to get more work done, as I wasn’t wasting time asking for permission.
Regarding the second factor: development of expertise, they provided me the freedom and psychological safety to try new things. I was able to experiment on the job, fail a bit, learn even more, and in the process innovate. Whether learning new ways to create Geospatial Intelligence at NGA, or implementing Agile software development methods at USGS, my best bosses gave me the opportunity to experiment with new ways of working and bringing value to our customer.
4. What was your biggest failure that didn’t crush you but made you a better leader?
A bit personal, but I’d say my divorce. There’s probably few experiences that provide as much opportunity for you to have some self reflection and examination of yourself, both your strengths and weaknesses. We like to think that we may be different at work than at home, or vice versa, but the reality is, you can always learn more about yourself and there’s always room for improvement. My divorce was one of the most difficult experiences I have gone through, but also one of the most powerful. I learned the value of building my personal network, and being more open and vulnerable to close friends and colleagues. I came to understand, as a leader and as a person, just how little control I actually have, and that a positive mindset and optimism are critical in overcoming the most difficult struggles. Probably most importantly, I came to understand the value and importance of owning my self improvement, and that all failures are learning opportunities. We shouldn’t run from them or even fear them, but rather make the most of any failure to learn as much as possible through it.
I also learned that to strive to improve and help others through empathy and love is a way to have an impact, whether at home or at work. A quote I remember reading during that time was “It may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility.” That kind of extreme ownership is critical to professional success, happiness, and leadership. And through it all, thanks to friends, family, and colleagues, I came out of it a better, and stronger, person.
5. What do you know now that you wish someone had told you before you entered government?
Patience! It took more than a day to build Rome, and longer than that to change policies after it was built.
6. What’s the best management advice you ever received?
The best management advice was from a senior leader, and it was aimed at developing understanding in people impacted by change, and not just aggressively pushing technical improvements regardless of the people. I’ll never forget it, he said “God damn it, you guys think you’re pushing all these technical innovations, but you’re acting like you’re driving a speedboat in a marina! Meanwhile, everyone else is bobbing around wondering what you’re doing. Slow down and get them to understand!” He was right, and he got our attention.
Those words and his advice have stuck with me. It’s important to have empathy for those impacted by change, whether process or technology. Don’t assume because they’re resisting that they’re stupid, but rather take ownership of the need to get them to understand the change, the difference it will make, and help them change their mind. In the process, you may find out some important details from them that may be critical to the success of whatever you’re hoping to accomplish.
7. You’ve been sentenced to spend the next year alone on a desert island with a single book on leadership. What book do you choose?
The three most important leadership books I’ve read were Hamilton, Machine that Changed the World, and Steve Jobs. Machine is a fantastic read, as it describes well the counterintuitive benefits of Lean processes, and specifically describes how Toyota was outperforming GM in the mid to late 1980s. Fantastic read. Meanwhile Jobs and Hamilton do a great job of highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of these two terrific leaders, one a leader that set the groundwork for our government and economy, the other revolutionized how and what we use to communicate and create. Three amazing books, and I’d probably chose Hamilton. Great writing, lots of terrific facts about the other leadership surrounding him at the time, like Washington and Jefferson. Heck, the book was so good, they made it into an award winning musical!
8. What is the most important skill a leader should have?
Empathy. A leader is someone who is motivating others to accomplish an organization’s goal. To do this, especially in the most difficult circumstances, it requires a leader to be able to empathize with others. This includes listening to people’s concerns, understanding them, and ensuring they feel heard. It can be consoling people through difficult times, often through listening, and responding with an appropriate level of optimism and positive direction.
Good leaders want to innovate, but they know that it won’t be them that comes up with the brilliant idea, it will be those people that make up their organization. So only through creating venues for sharing ideas, and actively listening for opportunities to turn ideas into new ways of working or new products or services, will their organization be successful.
Leaders own the results, but they also understand that “their people” will be making those results happen So the leader is actively listening to people’s concerns, addressing issues that are brought up, and chasing opportunities that their people have identified.
9. What is the most important skill a manager should have?
Trust. Managing a body of work requires a team, sometimes a team that’s very large and geographically dispersed. This work is likely accomplished through fantastically detailed and technical processes and technology, and none of it is understood by any one person in an organization. To effectively manage this work, a manager must trust their people, collaborators and engaged stakeholders. It’s important to hold them accountable, but also to listen to them, take the time to understand their concerns or details they’re providing, all of which relies on a manager’s ability to trust those they are relying on to accomplish the body of work.
10. What skill do you wish you had that you don’t currently possess, and why?
A skill I could always develop is listening. I think I’m a pretty good listener, but I could be better. Active listening skills are critical in leadership and its an area I constantly strive to improve.