Every Agency Needs a Semper Fi

The Marine Corps has sustained its elite status since its creation in 1775.

Possibly the best model of a high performance organization is the U.S. Marine Corps. There are many books on improving organizational performance but one of the earliest was Peak Performance:  Aligning the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees (2000) by Jon Katzenbach. His book discusses several paths to high performance. He starts with the Marine Corps to illustrate the importance of “mission, values and pride” to gain employee commitment. Katzenbach’s father served as a Marine during World War II and it's clear Katzenbach was influenced by his father’s pride in his service.

Katzenbach discusses four other paths to high performance: Process and metrics, entrepreneurial spirit, individual achievement, and recognition and celebration, with companies that illustrate each. He opens the book, however, with the Marine Corps and “the power of noble purpose and core values.”  

Most impressive is that the Marine Corps has sustained its elite status since its creation in 1775. And they have done it with a “disproportionate number of people from dysfunctional circumstances,” many lacking a positive self image, self discipline or a sense of belonging. He makes the point that the Marine Corps culture is “based on much more than military discipline. It is a culture of change, innovation and continuous improvement,” and the commitment embodied in the service’s motto: Semper Fidelis, or always faithful.

Civilian agencies may not have a Parris Island or drill instructors but many employees sought federal careers because they share the noble purpose and core values. In conversations over the years I have also sensed the pride many employees have in where they work, although that has fallen off, in some cases sharply, in recent years.

The Marine Corps’ story is relevant because of the growing evidence that agencies are entering an era of workforce concerns that can be expected to trigger performance problems. The most telling evidence is a recent survey showing “less than half [49%] of federal employees would stay with their organization if offered another comparable job.” A second report confirms a specific retention problem for tech specialists.  That undermines claims employees are highly engaged. Unfortunately, many disenchanted employees feel locked-in by age and accrued benefits. Their commitment to their organization’s success is limited, and that shows up in performance.

The problem is exacerbated by the aging workforce, the unusually tight labor market, demographic trends, and the public’s declining satisfaction with government. Government needs the public’s support but in four of the past five years, Gallup surveys show that the majority of respondents see government as the country’s No. 1 problem. Talent shortages and low federal salaries represent a serious disadvantage in competing for talent. Agencies should be required to highlight their staffing problems by posting workforce metrics. 

Culture is the Core Problem

Efforts to improve performance across government have been ongoing for more than 25 years. Federal agencies have posted mission and vision statements. They have created multi-year strategic plans with goal statements supported by stated objectives and annual performance plans. Statements of values or core principles, while not highlighted on every agency website, do exist. However, it’s very evident the posted statements have not solved the performance problem.  

There is recognition that change is needed. Recently it was announced that agencies are expanding pilot hiring programs. The Navy also unveiled a new civilian human capital strategy “to improve hiring, retention and employees’ experiences at work.” Plus, there is the ongoing initiative to build a cybersecurity workforce

Filling vacancies and adding critical skills is important but the common culture of compliance is a broader, deeply entrenched problem. To use a quote attributed to management guru, Peter Drucker, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The authors of the two-part National Academy of Public Administration report, No Time to Wait: Building a Public Service for the 21st Century, argued that “The focus on hiring and firing has diverted attention from the single most important challenge: investing in and improving the performance of . . . the professional civil servants.” The multi-phase strategy they set forth “to transform the civil service system” starts with changing to a “culture of performance.”

The NAPA report highlighted the core problem while a recent survey by Eagle Hill Consulting identifies more specific concerns:

  • Less than half of respondents see integrity, respect and trust as active elements of their agency’s culture
  • Only 38% trust their agency’s leaders
  • 75% believe their organization has core values but only 55% say the culture reinforces those values
  • 86% believe culture has a “direct impact on their organization’s success”.

Improved performance is highly unlikely in the absence of culture change. Culture influences the way people interact and collaborate, the messages people send, the context within which knowledge and innovative practices are applied, employee willingness to accept responsibility, and ultimately their commitment to improving results. Agencies can improve hiring practices but that does not influence how employees perform their jobs.

Culture change is difficult because it requires changing behavioral norms. When the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost returning to Earth in 2003, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration appointed a board to investigate what happened. The board concluded that NASA’s history and culture contributed as much to the accident as technical failures. Among the problems was the board’s conclusion that the “NASA culture does not fully reflect the Agency’s espoused core values of Safety, People, Excellence and Integrity.”  

The changes have to start with senior leaders and the strategy has to assure that each level of management exhibits behaviors consistent with the desired culture. Management has to send consistent signals supporting the new culture.

Toward that end, the Agency “targeted making measurable progress in changing its culture within six months, being able to demonstrate significant transformation in its culture within a year, and having broad changes in effect across the Agency over a period not to exceed three years.” The first task was to conduct a culture assessment and develop an implementation plan within 30 days. (A three-year assessment was not found.)

Although there is always push back for citing a state government, Tennessee invested three years in transitioning to a performance culture where employees commit to individual performance goals and are rewarded for their accomplishments. The state started with a survey and listening tour by the deputy governor and human resource commissioner. That contributed to a broad agreement in each agency on problems that needed to be addressed and provided the impetus for change. The state proves broad culture change is possible.

Defining the Desired Culture

Employee surveys are often used to develop a comparative profile of an organization’s culture but surveys say nothing about the best culture for an organization. That is best explored in follow-up small group discussions. Following the NASA model, employees should be asked periodically if the culture reinforces an organization’s core values—assuming the values have had more than perfunctory attention.

When employees are expected to comply with rules or top-down directives, they do not have the flexibility to address new job concerns—to solve problems. It’s easy to imagine the impact on how employees would approach their jobs and on performance if an agency’s culture reflected the words Katzenbach used in discussing the Marine Corps culture: “change, innovation, and continuous improvement.”

There is, however, a high barrier; it’s the Eagle Hill survey evidence that only 38% of employees trust their leaders. Unfortunately, there is also evidence suggesting all agency leaders in the current climate do not trust the people below them. It perpetuates the frequently mentioned risk aversion that impedes innovation.  That will be a barrier until it's addressed.

When NASA made the decision to address its culture, then Administrator Sean O’Keefe took the lead and requested a team to develop a set of guiding principles to help articulate the desired culture. It’s significant that NASA has been ranked for years by the Partnership for Public Service as the best place to work among large agencies. Its rating has improved consistently since the 2008-2010 recession.

Agencies near the bottom of the rankings should make culture change a priority. Talent concerns can signal dangerous performance problems. The research shows that disengagement is already inhibiting performance.

An important point is that government has highly diverse organizations; that makes it unrealistic to argue all agencies should share a common culture. It’s actually misleading to compare an organization’s culture with that of others (although researchers do that routinely). Similar problems might exist (e.g., the lack of trust) but may have a very different impact of performance. In arguing for agencies to switch to performance management, it’s important to appreciate that means something unique in each agency.  

That’s important to the agencies within the larger departments. The one that stands out is the Homeland Security Department. It’s a mistake, for example, to expect the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Secret Service to have similar cultures. But each could define an ideal culture to support its performance.

Organizations in every other sector—businesses, hospitals and colleges—compete for success.  Competition is obviously central to success in sports. A common practice is to boost their image by posting metric data showing their winning record. They also place more emphasis internally on celebrating achievements and on building “team” spirit. Success attracts better talent. The Marines understand how important it is to promote their winning image.  

For reasons no doubt buried in history, agencies appear reticent to demonstrate their value to the country.  As a suggestion, promote agency results, including progress in achieving goals. The business dashboards would be a great model. Hospitals also use that model. Agency achievements are important to everyone.