Join the Crowd

Walking in your employees’ or stakeholders’ shoes can teach you how to be a better boss.

In recent weeks, members of Congress have been listening to their constituents' concerns about health care reform and have heard a common refrain: Whatever insurance program Congress creates, lawmakers should join. If there's a public insurance option, people want their representatives in Washington to enroll in it.

Similarly, Washington-area Metro riders are angry that so many members of the board that oversees the transit system drive to work, rather than ride the rails or the bus. Shouldn't the people charged with running Metro use it, and see firsthand how overcrowding, breakdowns and delays affect riders' daily lives?

Many leaders suffer from an unfortunate elitist tendency. Their lives are isolated from their stakeholders' and employees' lives. They fail to connect to the concerns of the people who benefit from the programs they oversee and of the people who work for those programs. Because they don't experience what stakeholders and employees do, elitist leaders doom themselves to be ineffective.

It's easy to see how this disconnect grows. Look around at many federal agencies. Some leaders are chauffeured around -- even when the justification for such VIP treatment is weak at best. Others have the best parking space reserved for them in the garage. They get swanky offices. Their days are spent meeting in either their own swanky offices or those of other executives. They don't eat at the agency cafeteria with all the regular people. If these leaders do meet with employees, it's in agency auditoriums where they do all or most of the talking. The same goes if they meet with the general public: a lot of talking, not much listening. Agency chiefs' advance teams take care of all the details of their travel, ensuring that the bosses get out their talking points and any operations they see firsthand have been polished.

Federal bosses aren't entirely to blame for living in worlds separate from their employees and stakeholders. Organizations naturally build up walls around their leaders to shield them from problems. If a leader's visit to a field office is announced in advance, it's natural for the people who work there to respond by producing a dog-and-pony show. They want to look their best in front of the big boss.

Leaders have to push aside those walls to make sure they see what's really going on. They must find ways to get candid and authentic views of the operations they oversee. For a transit system executive, the task is fairly easy: ride the rails. The same is true for chiefs of agencies that provide direct public services such as parks, border security and tax compliance. Federal executives who oversee indirect operations such as grant-making programs, internal office support or regulatory controls have to be more creative. But they can start with a few simple steps: park at the far end of the garage; eat at the agency cafeteria; and before you ask employees or customers to do something, do it yourself.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.