HR chief Jeri Buchholz says cost cuts sparked virtual collaboration at NASA.

HR chief Jeri Buchholz says cost cuts sparked virtual collaboration at NASA. James Kegley

Secrets of Success

Managing through tough times is a challenge, but crisis creates opportunity too.

My family owned a 1984 Chevrolet Astro van when I was growing up. It was a gray, rambling tank that you wouldn’t dream of trying to parallel park. When the back fender showed signs of strain, my dad used duct tape to hold it together. It worked for a while, until one day it didn’t. The duct tape was, quite literally, a Band-Aid.

Sometimes the government reminds me of that car: An awkward, inefficient piece of machinery taped together, making do with short-term fixes when long-term solutions are needed. But the government has something our poor old van never had: A workforce of 2 million people trying to make it run better every day. 

That’s not easy, especially now. Automatic budget cuts, agency furloughs, a third year of a civilian federal pay freeze—the government’s list of challenges and employee morale busters is lengthy. “This is an extremely, quite unprecedented period in the life of any federal leader,” says Robert Tobias, director of key executive leadership programs at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “There have been periods in the past where feds have been under attack, where pay hasn’t increased, and there have been periods of time when there have been significant budget cuts. But this time all three are present. It’s like the perfect storm.”

Employee satisfaction with both pay and performance management dipped in 2012, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Among the disheartening statistics: Less than 22 percent of more than 687,000 respondents said pay raises at their agencies depended on how well employees did their jobs, and just 30 percent said performance is recognized in a meaningful way and promotions are merit-based. And yet, the survey also showed that a whopping 80 percent of federal employees like the work they do, and more than 75 percent of respondents said their agencies were successful at accomplishing their missions.

So the government is doing something right, or more accurately, certain agencies are. NASA, in particular, stands out for its consistently strong management and employee satisfaction ratings. NASA has “done a fantastic job” of linking the organization’s strategy to its mission goals and making sure employees understand how their work fits into the overall picture, says Kris van Riper, a managing director at CEB, a best practices advisory company. An agency’s commitment to engaging employees in the mission, more so than bonuses and other financial incentives, is what motivates most workers, van Riper says.

The best-managed agencies prize clear communication and transparency, use technology to further their missions and connect the workforce, and develop a solid set of performance metrics to gauge what’s working and what isn’t. Another sign of a well-run organization? Oversight, says van Riper, citing the IRS as an example. “IRS has so much scrutiny on it, but that pressure causes them to be better,” she says. “So many auditors, citizens and journalists are watching them.” The agency uses that pressure to its advantage, and turns it into an incentive for strong management.

The Silver Lining

Nobody likes sequestration, least of all federal employees who are facing furloughs and severe budget constraints. But automatic spending cuts present the government with a rare opportunity to revisit the status quo. 

OPM’s Angela Bailey believes sequestration creates opportunities for better, smarter management. She says she’s seeing a whole new level of resourcefulness and innovation from managers. “Nothing really brings people together— or tears them apart—like a crisis,” the chief human capital officer and associate director of employee services observes, speaking from 32 years of government experience.

For example, agency travel is one area under intense scrutiny right now; it’s also one of the first budget items that agencies slash in lean times. NASA decided last fall to crack the nut on virtual meetings to save money on travel, and the timing could not have been better. “Periodically, we bring senior executives to a summit that we knew in the current environment wasn’t wise,” says Jeri Buchholz, NASA’s chief human capital officer. So, Buchholz and other top managers developed an interactive curriculum for a virtual meeting, with some pre-recorded sessions and live chats. Participants could comment in real time. “People were very skeptical that this could be meaningful at all,” Buchholz says.

Then, Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in October 2012 during the virtual executive summit, closing down four NASA facilities. The agency was able to continue with its meeting because people could log on from laptops and smartphones. “At the end of that experiment, people completely changed their minds about collaborating in a virtual environment,” says Buchholz. And, she adds, “it cost us almost nothing.”

External forces, like sequestration or Mother Nature, can provide the impetus for organizations to rethink how they do business. “You almost always need some catalyst for change,” says Diana Farrell, director and co-founder of the McKinsey Center for Government, and previously deputy director of the National Economic Council during President Obama’s first term. Sequestration affords opportunities for managers to find efficiencies and help improve operations, Farrell says, albeit “in a bizarre way.” 

Sen. Tom Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also sees a silver lining amid the chaos. “Over the last few years, agencies have had to operate through one manufactured crisis after another—several debt ceiling crises, numerous and sometimes lengthy continuing resolutions, the threat of government shutdowns, the prospect of going over the fiscal cliff, and now sequestration,” says the Delaware Democrat. “That being said, I’m optimistic that the challenges of tight budgets will help drive innovations in management.” Carper says he expects more agencies will look for ways to partner with one another to reduce costs, for instance by leveraging the government’s buying power through strategic sourcing. “By necessity, agencies and their components will have to break down silos, and hopefully we will end up with a more integrated and effective government.”

Straight Talk 

Candor and transparency are not qualities most people associate with government. To be fair, the same can be said of many private sector companies. But federal agencies, in particular, traditionally have not clearly communicated with the public, or with their employees. It stands to reason that if agency leaders and managers are not communicating well—or at all—with staff, employees quickly become fearful, or worse, disengaged, which in turn adversely affects management.

“I don’t think you can have high productivity and low employee engagement,” Tobias says. “I don’t think it’s possible. The federal government doesn’t produce widgets, it produces knowledge and problem-solving, and for you as my boss to have access to my knowledge, we have to be connected.”

An April analysis from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service showed that federal employees are losing faith in their agency leaders, partly because they don’t believe they are as well-informed as their private sector counterparts. “The government lags behind the private sector by 17 points on employee satisfaction with the information they receive from management regarding what’s going on in their organization,” the report states. The analysis recommends that senior leaders and managers interact with employees more often and in more substantive ways. “Find ways to let employees know they are valued, including getting to know them by walking the halls and listening to their concerns,” the study suggests. The report also calls on managers to interview employees  about obstacles they face, offer timely and constructive feedback and communicate a clear leadership strategy through town halls, social media and regular staff meetings, as well as implement “competency-driven executive coaching programs.” 

Right now, the lack of communication about sequestration and furloughs at some agencies is creating anxiety among employees. Bailey says managers and agency leaders need to avoid “empty smiles and empty promises” when communicating with employees during tough times. And managers should focus on doing the best they can during uncertain times to prepare their organizations for a variety of scenarios, according to Farrell.

“There are many things where you have a reasonable sense of the range of possible outcomes,” she says.

NASA, for example, created a sequestration page for managers on a virtual portal that contains guidance and tools on how to talk to employees about the effects of the budget cuts on their jobs and careers. It’s in the “same place where they do the time cards,” Buchholz says, so managers can’t miss it. Social media has allowed agency leaders to “reach out and touch every employee,” she says, adding that it’s “really changing the focus of our communication” and enabling managers to target messages on topics their staffs care about. 

“The best thing you can do with uncertainty is to eliminate it,” she says. That’s easier said than done, especially when agencies are dealing with sequestration—a complicated, highly political and fluid issue. “A lot of the time, even when we honestly tell people we don’t know either, it’s hard for them to accept that the boss doesn’t know what’s going on,” says Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association.

The most important part of communication isn’t talking, but listening, Tobias says. Many senior executives say they’re too busy to listen, he adds, but honing that skill is a critical part of good management. Tobias regularly asks his students to identify what has made them feel engaged at work and they typically say that their bosses gave clear goals, provided feedback and spent time with them. But when he asks them to think about how they lead and how engaged their employees are, they begin to see how important those characteristics are. “They know what to do, but when confronted with it, they see it so starkly,” Tobias says. 

For agency leaders, a strong rapport outside the office can help too.

Buchholz views her close relationship with NASA Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Robinson as an asset in her job. “It’s actually more important to be able to have a glass of wine with the CFO than a place at the table,” she says.

Measure for Measure

“What gets measured gets done,” says CEB’s van Riper. Performance metrics can provide perhaps the most obvious snapshot of good, and not so good, management. But too many metrics can be distracting, van Riper says. Well-managed agencies keep the formula simple and focused, she says, citing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as an example. “They produce strategic plans and measures of success around timelines that are very actionable.”

For instance, USPTO has three broad human capital goals—talent management, results-oriented performance culture, and leadership and knowledge management—that correspond to specific objectives, outcomes and metrics to gauge whether progress is being achieved. 

USPTO also publishes statistics, metrics and strategic plans through dashboards on its website. The depth of agency information is extensive: Graphics with data listing attrition rates by grade level, fiscal year and gender, for example, are sprinkled throughout USPTO’s 2011-2015 strategic human capital plan. The plan puts a high priority on employee engagement and communication as well.

NASA’s Buchholz, whose agency also is known for setting specific performance measures, says metrics shouldn’t overshadow employees. “The rockets don’t build themselves. Our workforce is our ultimate flagship mission.” 

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