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Leading After the Shutdown

Here are three ideas for getting your team on track. And thank you for what you do. It’s people like you who make this a great country.

Last week I flew from Los Angeles to Baltimore and back and, like just about every other American who flies, was so grateful for the professionalism of the TSA agents and air traffic controllers whose job it is to keep travelers safe and alive. And, of course, last week they were in their fifth week of doing their vital jobs without pay because of the government shutdown. For so many reasons – safety, fairness, economic health – we can all be grateful that the shutdown is over (for now) and 800,000 public servants will again be paid for their work. (I could go on about how many of us feel about this situation but will defer to the words of FBI director Christopher Wray who summed it up far more eloquently than I could.)

So, this week it’s back to work for federal professionals who have been furloughed since the holidays and back to work with pay for those who were ordered to keep working without pay during the shutdown. It has me thinking about what the leaders of these folks might do in the coming weeks to ensure a smooth transition back. Actually, to give full credit where it’s due, the idea for this post came a few days ago in an email from a former client and long-time friend named Jenny. She is a senior manager in a federal agency that was affected by the shutdown. While she and her team were furloughed she kept leading.

In her email to me, Jenny told me what she did during the shutdown to support her team. The following is a direct quote from her email:

“I had 3 shutdown open houses over the break, which more than half my team attended, and sent regular messages with updates, so I feel like this will help make it easier to come back, as many have just seen each other – but I want to make strategically smart choices during the restart . . . in ways that help people refocus on the mission, restore their sense of agency/power, and process what has happened . . . I am thinking about personal notes to everyone, a welcome back lunch, frequent updates, and planning meetings to re-calibrate near-term and long-term priorities.”

As I read that, all I could think was, “Wow, the world needs more leaders, bosses and people like Jenny.” In her email, she asked me to offer some advice to leaders who are welcoming team members back from the shutdown starting this week and she made the point that whatever advice I could offer may be useful to other leaders who find themselves leading during or just after a crisis or some other traumatic event. With the recognition that it feels a bit presumptuous to offer advice to someone who has shown such authentic leadership, here are three ideas that I hope will be helpful to Jenny and all leaders who are leading after the shutdown or in other tough situations. They all, in different ways, build on the actions that Jenny has taken or will take in support of her team:

1. Give people space to connect. Close to a million Americans, through no fault of their own, just went five weeks without pay. As we saw in the news, they were forced to make choices about what bills to pay and start making plans for where else they might live when they missed a mortgage or rent payment. All of that is traumatic. When people go through trauma they have a natural need to connect and know that they’re not alone. If you’re a leader of a team that has gone through trauma, create some easy opportunities for people to connect and share their experiences and support for each other. That starts with welcoming them back, perhaps sharing some of your own experiences and then offering the floor to others to share theirs.

2. Focus on getting up and running. It’s been widely noted and reported that it’s going to be challenging to get things up and running as normal following the shutdown. To cite one basic example, there will be a whole lot of people who are locked out of their computers this week because their passwords expired during the shutdown. If you’re a leader in this situation, as much as possible focus on everything you can do reduce the hassle factors for your team as employees get back online (literally and figuratively). I recently wrote a post on the difference between leaders who triage and leaders who prioritize their work. The initial emphasis after a traumatic event like the shutdown needs to be triage. Put your effort in the first weeks back into alleviating the pain and pressure points that need to be cleared so your team can get back to the heart of the work.

3. Remind people why their work matters. If you’re suddenly told to stay home from work or to keep working without pay it could be easy to feel like your work doesn’t matter (at least to the people who decided not to pay you for five weeks). Of course, the work absolutely does matter and the impacts of the work not being able to occur at 100 percent levels ultimately led to the decision to end the shutdown. If you’re a leader of folks coming back this week, I encourage you to take some time to explicitly talk about why your employees’ work matters so much -- the things that don’t often get said. Tell your team, out loud, why their work matters. If you need a script try the Four P’s model developed by the late William Bridges. Remind them of their purpose (e.g. a safe food supply, safe skies, homeland security, collecting revenues for government services, etc.). Talk about the picture of what it looks like when all of you are working together to fulfill that purpose. Go over the plan you have for doing that and how you’re going to get back on track with that plan. Finally, point out the vital part that each of them has to play in acting on the plan that creates the picture that fulfills the purpose. That’s why their work matters. Let them know how much you and others appreciate that.

And if, by chance, you yourself, like my friend Jenny, are a leader or a team member coming back from the shutdown, thank you. Thank you for what you do and what you’re going to do. It’s people like you who make this a great country.