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Developing 21st Century Senior Intelligence Executives Into Leaders

It’s time to look beyond technical technical expertise and help people develop the skills they need to succeed as top managers.

The following is one of a series of chapters Government Executive is excerpting from a new book, Building a 21st Century Senior Executive Service, published by the National Academy of Public Administration and edited by Ron Sanders, vice president and fellow at Booz Allen. Click here for more information about the project.

For far too long, the federal government in general and the intelligence community in particular have promoted individuals with outstanding technical expertise to the ranks of the Senior Executive Service with little to no regard for their abilities to lead.

I am a recently retired 35-year career employee, with 20 years in the SES in the U.S. Department of Defense and the IC. I observed many well-intentioned employees who were brilliant in their technical or analytic fields become senior executives and then do an abysmal job. Once upon a time, the only way to get promoted to a senior position was to become a supervisor. While that has changed and there is now a dual track so technical experts can continue to advance without carrying major management responsibilities, we still have a tendency to promote those who have excelled in their technical fields to the SES. At the same time, we are not equipping them with the tools necessary to succeed as leaders.

I contend that leadership development programs, as preparation for the SES, should start on day one of an employee’s career. Someone told me early in my career that the military had the corner on leadership and the civilians had the corner on management. What I learned along the way was that the military actually taught leadership skills—and infused them throughout all of its training curricula—and the civilian side of the house needed to do the same. Once I was in a position to do so, I set out to do just that. Everyone is a leader, and leader development is everyone’s responsibility. It is not limited by pay band or General Schedule level, formal position, years of service, or those you know. Once this perspective is embraced, we can get on with the business of developing leaders.

Leading the Defense Intelligence Enterprise

When I was the Deputy Director of the DIA, I established a cohesive LDP. There were a number of leadership classes being offered at the time, but there was not a comprehensive program that developed our employees throughout their careers, adding to their knowledge base as they progressed through their careers. So we developed offerings for entry-level, mid-career, journeyman, and senior executives.

I was delivering a speech one day at DIA and was asked whether there are truly natural-born leaders or whether leadership is a learned skill. My answer was “yes.” While there are those who seem to have a talent for leadership, even natural-born leaders can and should further develop their skills. I am a proponent of lifelong learning and career development. No matter how experienced we are, no matter where we are in our lives or careers, we can and should continue to learn and develop our skill sets and our personal selves— including our leadership skills.

As the Deputy Director, I attended the pilot offering of “Great Leaders, Great Culture,” the leadership class for the senior executives. I thought it important that I lead by example by attending that first offering of the seminar. If it was going to be mandatory for all seniors, even I was not exempt. I remember thinking on the first day that I could have used this knowledge much earlier in my career. It was actually the first formal leadership training I had ever attended and here I was, the number two in the agency. I was a prime example that the military had the corner on leadership and civilians on management. I vowed then to do all I could to ensure the program was spared from budget cuts. In fact, we increased the budget every year I was there from 2006 until 2010.

When I became the Director of NGA in 2010, I reviewed the LDP there (I had modeled the DIA program after NGA’s, which was—in my view—best of breed at the time) and learned it was ready to be refreshed. Based on what I had learned at DIA, I realized the program needed to be much more than a series of LDPs at multiple  points throughout an employee’s career. In order to prepare our civilians for future leadership opportunities and challenges, we needed a holistic approach that incorporated all aspects of our talent management program.

NGAs Leader Development Initiative

Underpinning all of this was the Leader Development Initiative (LDI). As we developed our strategic plan for the core mission of NGA, LDI was the foundation for all of our initiatives. LDI was so important that I selected a top executive to lead the initiative, Mike Rodrigue. (Mike would go on to be the NGA Deputy Director.) This was a deliberate signal to the agency of just how important the initiative  was. One of the first things Mike did was to develop a framework for effective servant leadership. He outlined a set of leader competencies that we felt were necessary to be a top leader in NGA and the IC. This competency model was the thread to be used to develop leaders from new hires to senior leadership. He developed the competencies through focus groups, where participants discussed the attributes and behaviors associated with our core values. While there were 17 competencies in the overall framework, we focused on five for the senior executives: Motivating Others, Peer Relationships, Timely Decision Making, Integrity and Trust, and Courage.

I personally added courage to this list. This is an attribute that I could write a book on…something that I believe is so important for all senior executives and those who aspire to be. The attributes were also adapted and cascaded down to the lower pay band levels. We then used those attributes in position descriptions as needed attributes, in our performance appraisal process, and in our career service and succession management plans. We used them to develop a strong leadership culture at all levels to effectively lead and execute NGA’s mission and vision.

Agencywide Talent Management

Talent management begins with recruiting, and recruiting begins with knowing what talent already exists within  your organization and what talent will be necessary in the future to optimally  perform and grow your mission. This is a partnership between your human resources organization and your functional (line) offices. HR can do the recruiting, but they need to know the skills they are looking for. Our best recruitment was done with integrated teams comprising recruiters and subject matter experts. We also completely revamped our recruiting materials. We hired a professional firm to work on our branding efforts along with our Office of Communications. We redesigned our recruiting center to streamline the application process and marry it with the security clearance process.

New Employee Orientation and First Impressions

Once an individual is hired, employee engagement starts on the first day. (Employee engagement actually starts with the first contact during the hiring process, and we worked hard to make that a positive experience.) At NGA, I would kick off the New Employee Orientation Seminar by welcoming the cohort of new employees. I talked about the LDI and the opportunities afforded to them. I talked with them about our leader attributes, their relationship to our core values of EARTH—Excellence, Accountability, Respect, Teamwork, and Honesty—and their importance to mission success. I walked them through the agency’s vision and strategy to make it real for them and ended with administering the oath of office.

I also talked about the oath, the legacy we inherit as public servants, and the importance of public service and it being a sacred public trust that we must never break. If I was not available to do this (I actually planned my travel and meeting schedule around these seminars), the Deputy Director or Chief Operating Officer (COO) filled in. I felt it was extremely important that one of the top three engage with our new employees on their first day. It was a great investment of 30 minutes of my time every other week. Throughout my four years as Director, many employees provided feedback about the impression it made that the Director (or Deputy or COO) spent time with them on their first day at NGA.

Functional Career Services to Drive Career Development

Another aspect of talent management is career development. While career development is ultimately the responsibility of the individual, a framework is necessary so employees know what is expected of them and what they need to learn and demonstrate to progress to the next level. The framework NGA developed was career services. Every position was covered by one of nine career services, including geospatial intelligence operations, research and development, financial management, and human capital. Career services were led by senior leaders who were responsible for the strategic management and development of professionals within  that career service, integrating talent management functions including career development, certification, promotion, and workforce planning.

This was not to absolve front-line supervisors of their responsibility for developing their employees. Career services defined standards to ensure consistency across the agency, as well as transparency into the various talent management processes. Supervisors were still responsible for assessing their employees against competencies, experiences, and core qualifications; rating their subject matter expertise and performance—including how well they exhibited the leader attributes; determining and supporting their education and training needs; and assessing their potential for increased responsibilities based on mission requirements and needs.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was with our supervisors. They were often the central link—especially first-line supervisors—to employee engagement and satisfaction. If a supervisor understood their role was to develop their employees and ensure their employees’ success, then they would be successful also. This of course was a real shift for the first-time supervisor: moving from being a doer to an overseer, from being developed to being the developer, from being the follower to the leader of followers. This was why the LDI was so important.

Interagency Mobility: Voluntary vs. Mandatory

Another tool in the IC to develop our people and ensure readiness for senior executive positions is the joint duty assignment (JDA). A tenet for the federal SES, when it was established, was that its members would move from agency to agency, bringing their expertise and strategic thinking to solve hard problems.

Another tenet was that the cadre would operate under a uniform performance- based system. The IC joint duty program was designed to develop a workforce able to lead with a community perspective and strategic outlook. It was originally  established in 1997 by the Community Management Staff (CMS), which was the predecessor organization to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). (I was the CMS Staff Director at the time and very involved in the development of the program.) It was named the Intelligence Community Officer Program,  and there were two parts to it: a JDA in another element of the IC, DOD, federal government, academia, or industry; and a community training program.

Participation was mandatory under an IC policy, but there were no repercussions if the policy was not followed. One of the lessons learned from the 9/11 Commission was that we were not acting like—or performing as—a community. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) mandated the development of a joint duty program. The law made participation a requirement for advancement to the senior ranks—à la Goldwater-Nichols and promotion to general officer for the uniformed services. A decade plus later, if one looks at the Directors and Deputy Directors across the community, they have all had multiple  JDAs. I held 10 different jobs in six different agencies as a senior executive. I dare say I would not have been the first civilian director (with no prior military experience) of one of our major intelligence agencies without those experiences.

That said, it continues to be a challenge to manage the joint duty program. Ensuring that folks are taken care of from a home agency administrative standpoint while they are on rotation, that they have meaningful assignments when they are detailed to another organization, and that there is a seamless reintegration program when they return are just a few of those challenges. Additionally, while there are full-time program management offices in each organization to administer the program, each agency manages the program differently.

One of the complications of the program is filling behind individuals when they are out on assignment. For that reason, it is not unusual to have managers who will not allow their folks to apply for positions if their management gives them no backfill. The workload is not diminished, and deliverables must still be completed on time with one less person. To handle this, the ODNI has mandated that all positions be reimbursable so offices can hire contract talent for the duration of the absence. However, this is not always easy to do given some of the expertise requirements of the IC.

For the joint duty program to be successful, it will require continued focused leadership from across the IC at the senior level. One of the more successful initiatives in this regard, early in the program’s tenure, was a two-day offsite led by the ODNI and attended by most of the IC Deputy Directors. (I was Deputy Director of DIA at the time.) We all arrived with our four-inch-thick binder of open IC position descriptions, along with our agency lists and resumes of high-performing GS-13s, 14s, and 15s who needed joint duty experience. We rolled up our sleeves and matched over 100 folks the first day and 100 more the second day. It was a manually intensive process, but we made some really good placements and built more trust during those two days than we probably had at a dozen previous Deputy Committee meetings.

Something that often lurked in the background was whether an agency was trying to offload a poor performer—even though everyone had access to performance information of those seeking a joint duty position. By sitting down face to face, we voiced and addressed those concerns by putting our personal stamps of approval or backing behind every individual. Did all assignments work out perfectly as a result? No. Did most of them work out good enough? Yes. And we placed more individuals during that two-day session than we had during all previous open seasons combined. One unique twist to the JDA program was rotations to industry. Those counted as joint duty credit, but it was a sticky issue for the lawyers. When I left NGA in October 2014, we had two employees with the private industry and one with a nonprofit, but the notion of education with industry remained nascent.

As the IC joint duty program percolated along, we implemented an internal rotational program at NGA to broaden our officers so they understood all— or more—aspects of the NGA mission set. Interestingly, some of the same challenges existed with our internal program as with the community program. Even with our internal program, we had to encourage supervisors to endorse their folks to participate, and we had to implement mechanisms to ensure folks who did participate were not out of sight, out of mind when it came to appraisals, bonuses, and training and education opportunities. Likewise, we had some of the same challenges reintegrating employees into their next jobs. As with the IC program, we wanted to take advantage of new skills learned, not simply put folks back in their old jobs. It always came back to leadership and the supervisor ’s ability to see beyond themselves.

Performance Management with Consequences

Unique to NGA (in the IC) is the agencywide pay-for-performance appraisal and compensation program. NGA conducted a pilot program in 2000, and it is still going strong. Pay-for-performance is a movement away from entitlements. There are no pay increases based on longevity—rather, pay increases are all performance based. The system is similar to the certified performance-based systems for senior executives across the federal government. Employees are rated against their performance elements and then rank ordered against their peers. The size of individuals’ pay adjustments—or raises—is determined by where they fall on the 1-N list. This system ensures top performers are recognized for their contributions. We set individual, team, and agency-wide goals to encourage the team behavior we wanted.

This program was also a retention tool. During the three years that there were no pay increases due to the budget downturn, NGA was able to increase pay based on a certified pay-for-performance system. We may not have stock options in the government, but being able to increase the pay of your folks when no one else across the government is able to do so is powerful motivation. The system, however, is not a panacea; one must set achievable, measurable goals and have the courage to give honest, critical feedback. And that takes leadership. Equitable treatment, not equal treatment, is mandatory. Training for managers to ensure consistency across the organization is key, and mechanisms to check that consistency are crucial also.

Rank-in-Person vs. Rank-in-Position

Coupled with a pay-for-performance system is a modern promotion program. In 2013 NGA moved from a rank-in-position promotion system to a rank-in-person promotion system. A rank-in-position system requires a specific advertised vacant position, and individuals apply for that specific position. Everyone’s application is reviewed, and the most qualified person is selected.

In contrast, a rank-in-person system promotes employees based on a competitive evaluation of a peer group against corporate promotion criteria. The latter supports the selection of those who demonstrate the behaviors or attributes that are consistent with the values and tenets of the organization. Based on merit principles, those who meet the highest standards of professional achievement, executive qualifications, managerial competence, and, most importantly,  executive leadership and potential are selected. They are then moved to positions commensurate with their skill sets and potential.

Real Succession Management

Workforce planning includes recruiting, which we have already briefly discussed, as well as succession management. Succession management in the IC should be a means of developing corporate officers as both agency-wide and IC professionals. It is a future-focused strategic approach to identifying and developing agency leaders considering past and current performance, future potential, and readiness for a new challenge. Succession management’s development focus is on preparing for possible future assignments for which an individual may be ready now or in the future. It is to identify talent an organization already has that is ready today, or will be in the near term, and determine where that talent can be applied within the organization. (Also, there are from time to time calls for nominations for community positions.)

A succession management program asks the critical questions necessary to develop talent toward specific purposes. The process should result in a development plan for each person that focuses on needed experience, exposure, and education for potential future assignments. In kind, these development plans are to ensure a strong pipeline for the agency’s executive positions. This was implemented at NGA in 2012 with the senior executives and then cascaded down to the rest of NGA. It is an outstanding tool that lets individuals know what their leadership believes they are ready to do now and where they need to focus in their self-development for future assignments. This was also done at the IC level for a few years under former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Mike McConnell. This is an area that needs further effort at the IC level to ensure a pipeline of officers ready to serve in the senior- most positions across the IC.

Development of talent is a key strategy for mission accomplishment. However, a talent management plan is not an end unto itself and must be linked to your organization’s overall management framework—from the strategic plan to the employee engagement plan, the performance appraisal system, and the career development plan. The better these are synchronized, the better your chances of achieving your mission goals and objectives. And underpinning it all is strong leadership.

Letitia Long is the former director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Photo: Flickr user Lucky Lynda