The Modern Federal Manager Works Somewhere in Your Agency
Today’s successful career federal executive defies the stereotype of the paper-pusher of the past.
Talk about timing: Just as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s massive new financial management system went live in October 2013, the government shut down. The debut of the project Richard Haley has shepherded since he arrived at the agency in 2005 coincided with the first government closure in 17 years. For the federal workforce, 2013 was the nadir in a series of low points during the past few chaotic years: More proposals to cut pay and benefits, the advent of sequestration, furloughs, and then a government closed for business at the start of a new fiscal year.
Employees were “maxed out,” between sequestration and the shutdown, says Haley, chief financial officer of the bureau, whose mission becomes more complicated as the world becomes more dangerous. But the FBI’s migration to the Justice Department’s Unified Financial Management System went as expected: the agency’s 32-year-old financial system went dark in mid-September, and UFMS went live on Oct. 7, a week into the shutdown. It was a carefully planned and executed project that the FBI had tested in a select few field offices in 2012, before last fall’s large-scale final implementation.
“If this was a marathon, we did it in the Alps,” says Haley, a senior executive who received a Presidential Rank Award of Distinguished Executive in 2008.
Today’s federal managers feel like they are constantly running, mostly uphill. The fiscal uncertainty of the past few years is partly to blame, but it’s also a result of a swiftly changing world and the modern economy. There are more demands than ever on government, but agencies still struggle to modernize their operations and management. Sometimes that’s a result of fewer resources; more often, it’s because of a lack of vision, as well as the inertia that permeates government when Congress and the administration are locked in perpetual battle.
The era of the paper-pushing federal manager who sticks to the script is mostly over. Now more than ever, the government needs career leaders who can pitch ideas like the hard-charging ad exec Don Draper of Mad Men, manage a workforce with Oprah Winfrey’s high emotional IQ, and accomplish tasks on deadline and under budget with the business savvy of billionaire investor Warren Buffet. Ideal leaders also should understand the federal budget and procurement processes, be able to navigate complicated financial management and IT systems, and deal effectively and diplomatically with Congress. None of those responsibilities are simple or easy. There are many federal managers with these attributes and more, Haley and the Treasury Department’s Patricia Pointer among them. Neither career executive has worked much, if at all, outside government, yet they defy the stereotype of the lifelong fed. For every private sector management guru who sails into an agency to show ’em how it’s done, there is a Haley or a Pointer already getting it done in government.
The FBI’s relatively smooth transition to a contemporary, integrated financial management system is in stark contrast, for instance, to the disastrous initial rollout of HealthCare.gov. It’s not that the FBI’s migration to the UFMS has been without problems, Haley says. But his team anticipated challenges, and then set to problem-solving. The idea wasn’t to avoid mistakes; it was to test systems in a safe environment in stages before an agencywide migration, and learn from both setbacks and successes.
“In the IT world, there are enough failures to go around in the different agencies,” Haley says. “We have had our share of them. The landscape is littered with that.” Haley and his leadership team were in constant contact with the offices that participated in the 2012 pilot, gauging what worked and what didn’t, listening to employees’ experiences working with the system, and tweaking things along the way. Later, during the rollout, those pilot employees became the de facto trainers, educators and evangelists for the UFMS when the full migration occurred. That has made a big difference so far in convincing employees to accept and embrace the new system.
“They were messaging to their peers, which is powerful,” says Haley. In other words, employees could rely on their colleagues’ candor instead of leadership propaganda. Haley’s team also set up a help center to field employee questions about the new financial management system, inspired partly by Lands’ End, a company that sells clothes, shoes and outerwear. Haley says a member of his team memorized the retailer’s customer service number and called it during at least one meeting to illustrate the company’s thorough approach to problem-solving—an approach the FBI sought to emulate. “I’m going to pull you in instead of push you away,” is how Haley describes it.
Born in Morgantown, W.Va., Haley comes across as the anti-bureaucrat. He’s accessible, his speech is noticeably jargon-free, and he is comfortable talking at length with a reporter without a public affairs official present. This is all pretty unusual, especially for someone who started his career as an Army intelligence officer, began his government service as a presidential management intern in the 1990s, and worked at the Commerce Department and Justice before accepting the job of FBI budget chief. Haley prefers to communicate information rather than withhold it, and his collaborative yet disciplined approach to project management is especially well- suited to these uncertain times in government.
Kris van Riper, a managing director at CEB, a best practices advisory company, says “change agility,” or the ability to adapt quickly and strategically to fluid situations, is especially important now in government. “The attributes of the most effective managers look different now than they did five to 10 years ago,” says van Riper. “I don’t know that the things in the past that made them successful will be the same ones now.” She says many federal managers who “grew up in the government” probably wouldn’t have scored as high a decade ago in the change agility category.
In his previous job, Haley served as the deputy budget director for the Justice Department, so he wasn’t exactly a government neophyte. “I was probably the biggest pain in the ass for the FBI” in that job, says Haley. He had to reach out to every law enforcement component of Justice for financial data, and they all responded except the FBI. “Oh my gosh, this place [FBI] was the bane of my existence,” Haley says. He was reluctant to move to the FBI, but he took a chance and remained open, despite his frustrating professional experience with the agency. Haley says the complexity of the FBI’s operations and missions “blew me away when I got here,” and put his perspective of the agency in a new context. Haley came to the FBI as a seasoned manager, but he didn’t allow his institutional knowledge or experience to become blind spots; his view of the agency evolved based on what he learned on the job.
Not many career executives can say they reorganized an agency—one of the most complex undertakings in government. The logistical, political and emotional landmines of such a project require every management skill you can think of, and then some. At Treasury, Pointer helped merge the now defunct Office of Thrift Supervision with the department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in 2011. The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act required the elimination of OTS, which left it up to Pointer, deputy comptroller of human resources at OCC, and her team to acquire or “integrate,” as she puts it, up to 1,100 employees. OTS employees had to be transferred to positions that were the same as their abolished jobs, to the extent possible. If that wasn’t an option, OCC helped those employees find jobs in other agencies, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. In the end, Pointer’s organization absorbed 800 employees from OTS.
Two years later, Pointer does not consider the transition, or her work, finished. “We continue to work through integration issues and challenges,” she says. During the reorganization she collected employee feedback through internal surveys and uses the data to continually improve communication between leadership and the workforce. Pointer says the agency has scored high on engaging employees, but she’s not getting complacent with that success and continues to keep her eye on recruitment and retention. The integration with OTS forced OCC managers to be frugal in hiring during the last few years as they simultaneously worked to stay ahead of a potential retirement wave and build up the examiner workforce. Right now, Pointer says, 15.9 percent of examiners—two-thirds of the agency’s workforce—are eligible to retire. In 2017, 35 percent of that population will be eligible for retirement.
“If we don’t do something, we will be in a crisis mode,” says the third-generation public servant who started her career in education and began working for the federal government in 1989. During the last decade, the agency has hired between 75 and 150 entry-level examiners each year. Over time, OCC has planned for its future human capital needs while also incorporating the more immediate demands of a major reorganization. Pointer says it’s about trust and empowering employees with the skills and abilities to perform. We have to give them the “discretional autonomy” to do their jobs, she says. “For managers, our role is to be an enabler, to get the best out of our people,” adds the Maryland native. That includes “providing a safe place to encourage creativity and innovation . . . and a work environment where it’s OK to make mistakes, and employees can make mistakes.”
The time for errors, and learning from them, is ideally before a project goes live or goes completely off the rails. It’s unrealistic, not to mention foolish, to expect a major undertaking, like migrating to a new financial system or reorganizing an agency’s workforce to be completely error-free. Haley and Pointer both know that, which is why they prepare for and build in time for mistakes. That’s also why they constantly seek feedback from their “customers.” They cannot anticipate every problem, so they need to maintain a dialogue with users to uncover unforeseen issues. That approach to management is what’s known as continuous process improvement, a strategy that favors ongoing incremental changes to increase efficiency and effectiveness in work flow. It’s particularly important in government, where transparency and accountability for taxpayer funds must be the top priority.
“Government management should be nonpartisan, but it’s not,” says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. The ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee blames Congress for a lack of oversight over executive agencies, and the politics that go into selecting people “who don’t have the skill set of running large organizations” to lead agencies. Coburn says some senior executives have good management skills, and some don’t, but by and large, they are better suited to leadership roles in agencies than many political appointees. “They actually know what they are doing, they don’t have a learning curve,” he says. “They also know where the skeletons are buried.”
Haley and Pointer probably know where a few skeletons are buried. It’s hard not to when you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in government rising through the ranks. It’s yet another facet of the increasingly complicated job federal managers face today—a job that has more in common with current high-profile industry leaders than the paper-pushers of the past. Miguel Helft wrote this description of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in an Oct. 28, 2013, profile in Fortune magazine:
“There’s no one job description for COOs, but they are almost always inward-facing bureaucrats who make sure the trains run on time, cut a low profile and toil in the shadow of their bosses. [Sandberg] does keep the trains on time, for sure. But she’s also a chief deal maker and an ad sales honcho responsible for Facebook’s revenue; she taps her influential network to open doors; she travels the world to meet with politicians; and channels the desires of the world’s biggest marketers in a language Facebook’s engineers understand.”
Sure, federal managers earn a lot less money than Sandberg, in much less glamorous jobs. But today’s federal executives have just as many responsibilities and roles to play, if they hope to be successful.
Pay and benefits are important to employees, but compensation does not determine job satisfaction and success. Workers crave empowerment, says Kris van Riper, a managing director at CEB, a best practices advisory company. Leaders who can connect employees to the organization’s mission and clarify how that mission works have the greatest success in engaging employees, she says. How can managers get the best from their workforce?
Help Employees Prioritize Work
If an employee is struggling to complete assignments, help them prioritize their workload. Managers tend to try to simplify complex jobs, or do the work themselves, if an employee is having trouble with a task. That’s a fool’s errand, says van Riper. “Narrowing tasks for employees doesn’t improve engagement,” she says. “What does is helping people navigate.”
Be More Proactive Than Reactive
Don’t wait until there’s a crisis to introduce yourself to the office. Walk around, talk and listen to the rank and file, and observe. Soliciting feedback from workers should be ongoing, not something you do every six months, or when there’s a problem. Keeping up with what’s going on and how people are doing doesn’t need to be a formal process. People will be more candid if they are used to frequent, informal interactions—and that will be invaluable when problems crop up.
Clearly state job expectations as well as short- and long-term goals. This is common sense, but many managers still fail to do it well, or at all. Discuss the agency’s mission and how the employee’s responsibilities fit into it. And if you don’t know something, or have little information to share, then say that. In the absence of communication, people tend to assume the worst.