“It is unique for a leader to meditate with their people … it is odd, but then again my team was accustomed to me coloring outside the lines,” says Anne Shepherd.
Anne Shepherd is a problem-solver. As the associate chief information officer for user and network services at the Internal Revenue Service, she has a lot of problems to solve. Her portfolio includes responsibility for the architecture, design, engineering and operations for the IRS enterprisewide area network, unified VoIP communications and contact center infrastructure, end-user desktop computing services and more. Her team also manages the service desk to solve IT problems for staff.
How does she manage it all? How does her staff? In a word: Meditation.
“It is unique for a leader to meditate with their people … it is odd, but then again my team was accustomed to me coloring outside the lines,” Shepherd said.
Over the past year, Shepherd folded in what she called “mindfulness moments” to team meetings. “I tried to show up differently, to show the humane side—that aspect of being a servant-leader, of helping my team anyway I could.”
Like the IRS network infrastructure, her team operates 24/7. As with all systems—digital or human—planned maintenance is necessary for optimal performance. This is the concept Shepherd has introduced and her team has learned to embrace.
When Designers Meditate
Shepherd first learned of the positive impacts of mindfulness while studying for her Ph.D. The research of Wenli Wang, a professor of computer and information systems and IS management and design at Robert Morris University, demonstrated the relationship between meditation and information systems design. The conclusion: When designers meditate, they create a better user experience.
“The academic research in this space coincided with some of the mindfulness apps that were coming out,” Shepherd said, so she experimented with the concept. “I did not start out with the idea that it would become a practice, but it worked for me, so I wanted to share it.”
“It is important to teach the team how to create peace of mind, stillness, centeredness and to encourage a meditative state,” Shepherd said.
Maintaining network infrastructure for the IRS, including for one of the world’s largest call centers (which doubles as the back-up call center for FEMA during natural disasters) means her team had to stay laser focused on mission delivery, despite the monkey wrench the COVID-19 pandemic threw into the agency’s operations.
So when IRS needed to process and send out stimulus checks, Shepherd said she witnessed her team engage in creative problem-solving that resulted in one of their greatest successes.
“We created a war room with captains on duty 24 hours to monitor and surveil back-end systems to make sure our site and app were operational and could handle the demand. And the stimulus checks went out on time,” Shepherd said.
Regularly Scheduled Meditation
Shepherd’s “mindfulness moment” is one element in her bi-monthly fireside chats with staff. In the final five minutes, Shepherd asks her employees to close their eyes and focus on deep breathing.
“It is a practice easy enough to do anywhere and at any time as mindfulness moments can be just that—one minute, five minutes. I do it while walking or exercising. I have even pulled my car over and taken a moment to meditate,” Shepherd said.
The facilitated meditation industry is healthy, and one can find numerous online apps that offer guided meditations of varying lengths, music playlists that help you relax, journaling guidance and sleep aids, among others.
Within the user and network services organization, Shepherd said mindfulness practices are not mandated but have grown organically as people embrace the concept and then see the benefits for themselves.
“One senior manager, in pursuit of a master’s degree while balancing work and family responsibilities, told me she folded meditation into her life as a way to relax from her many pressures. She told me that meditation also helped her reflect on and take pride in all she had accomplished so far.”
Mindfulness and Mental Health
Mindfulness can also help people be more accepting of the current remote work environment, Shepherd said. During virtual meetings, interruptions like the small child showing off her new toy or barking dogs “create an atmosphere that allows all the ways we show up as humans—when work is at home and home is where we work, it’s all acceptable. These things can make us smile in the moment and relieve stress and anxiety.”
Shepherd said mindfulness also can be the first step to normalizing mental health issues. ‘It is a leader’s responsibility to care for employees holistically. Mindfulness may be the trigger for some who are struggling to start a conversation about their own stress or anxiety, especially if they are unlikely to take advantage of the official programs offered by the agency.”
“When you lead with mindfulness, your care and concern for humanity is up front. Team and followers respond to that genuineness and authenticity about caring for people,” Shepherd said. “The pandemic has given government leaders an opportunity to bring the best of ourselves to the job.” And for Shepherd that means supporting the UNS team and delivering results to the nation’s taxpayers.
Lee Frothingham is the managing director for client engagements at Wheelhouse Group. This article is part of a series in which Wheelhouse Group consultants interview their federal clients for insight into how they lead their teams through a pandemic.
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