Managing Government as a Talent Driven Organization

The new OPM director has a lot of work ahead—if the administration acknowledges the importance of reinventing HR.

Two books published this month directly relate to the goal of improving performance. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey co-authored with Ori Brafman, Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership. Three prominent consultants drafted the second, Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First. The books focus on very different but complementary subjects central to raising workforce performance levels.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but also this month the Office of Personnel Management finally got its new director, Jeff Tien Han Pon, the first director in decades with solid HR credentials. The authors of Talent Wins argue the reinvention of HR should be a critical priority. That is now more important in government than in any other sector.

These are not HR books, however. Talent Wins was written “for CEOs and leaders across the organization.” The authors, Dominic Barton, Dennis Carey, and Ram Charan “have a combined 90 years of advising CEOs and their boards.” General Dempsey’s book was selected by the Washington Post as one of the 11 leadership books to read in 2018. In combination, the books present an argument that would make federal agencies far better and more productive places to work.

Pon should make reinventing HR an early priority. The civil service system was conceived in a very different era and it’s now a barrier to raising performance levels.  

The organizations that are prominent successes today are all high on the lists of the best places to work. The authors of Talent Wins refer to those companies as “talent driven” or “people first” organizations. Many are in the technology sector but consistently close to the top of lists is Wegmans, a regional supermarket chain that recently opened highly successful stores in the Washington D.C. area. Wegmans secret is a consistently positive work experience that attracts talent at all its varied locations.

The federal government, more than any other employer, has created a number of talent driven organizations where many of the world’s experts come to work each day. The list is long: the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, NASA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Security Agency, FBI, and many others that employ experts in their respective fields.  

The authors argue talent-driven companies “are as focused on talent as they are on strategy and finance.”  They recommend companies form a “central brain trust”—the G-3—which includes the CEO, Chief Financial Officer, and the Chief Human Resources Officer. Yes, in those organizations the CHRO is on a par with the CFO. The G-3 officers meet regularly to make sure the company has the right talent and “to ensure that talent is truly integral to every major strategic decision across the organization.”

The administration differentiates between high-value and low-value jobs. They correctly argue that low-value administrative work should be replaced by technology. But achieving the important agency goals will always depend on talent and workers at every level. Further, just as customer service is important in supermarkets, low level employee performance can play an important role in every agency’s success.  

Talent issues are central to every agency. The public, I suspect, would all want the clerk in a Post Office to respond with a greeting similar to what I have come to expect in Wegmans. The reports of a “culture of complacency” at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Washington highlight a talent problem. The employees who answer questions in a Social Security office need to be friendly and knowledgeable. At its core, cybersecurity is a talent problem. At every level talent concerns are central to government operations.

The administration is also correct that performance levels needs to be raised. However, every component of the civil service system is an impediment. When the system was conceived, many of today’s occupations and the problems now confronting the country would have been inconceivable. For organizations that want to attract world class talent, government’s hierarchical organizations and its HR policies and systems are the antithesis of what’s needed.  

In all the discussions I’ve ever had with federal leaders and managers, I have never heard a positive comment about government’s HR function. The administrative jobs are not going to be automated tomorrow but the reinvention cannot wait. HR offices need to develop a cadre of advisers who have a broad understanding of agency operations, along with expertise in building high performance teams. Realistically, HR specialists now focused on administrative duties will find it very difficult to gain acceptance in an advisory role.  

There are a number of books and websites that discuss leading edge HR thinking and practices. A recent Government Executive story (“The Federal Government Has Gotten Slower at Hiring New Employees for 5 Consecutive Years”) highlighted once again how slow hiring has become. The importance of knowledge and skills in talent-driven organizations should make training a priority. Performance management is widely acknowledged to be a problem. And the General Schedule should have been replaced decades ago. OPM’s Pon has a lot of work ahead—if the administration acknowledges the importance of reinventing HR.

The goal should be to create a work experience that attracts well-qualified talent, provides support for continued individual development, and encourages employees to apply their capabilities fully to address problems.  

General Dempsey’s book is equally important although it does not provide for specific policy recommendations. While his message is directed to leaders in all organizations, it’s relevant to managers at every level. He and his co-author set forth six general guidelines for creating a shared feeling best described as esprit de corps:

  1. Belonging isn’t optional: give them memories.
  2. Connect effort with meaning: make it matter.
  3. Think about what you’re not thinking about: learn to imagine.
  4. Prevent decision paralysis: develop a bias for action.
  5. Collaborate at every level: co-create context.
  6. Expand the circle: relinquish control to build and sustain power.

Having had opportunities to work with organizations in every sector, the guidelines outline a management philosophy that would help any organization or executive engage its employees and enhance its prospects for success. I found one statement particularly important in this context: “Solving our problems by husbanding power and aspiring to greater control is producing suboptimal, fragile, and costly outcomes.”

That is clearly relevant in the federal environment where micromanaging continues to be a problem and where a lack of trust and respect makes it difficult in too many organizations to undertake the transformative changes needed to raise performance levels. The changes cannot start too soon.