Memo to CXOs: Keep it simple

Survey respondents criticize chiefs for poor communication and unrealistic goals.

Chief executives need to focus on performance management, communication and achieving practical goals to be more effective, according to a report from the Government Business Council.

GBC, the research arm of Government Executive, surveyed more than 200 federal executives and interviewed dozens of managers on issues agency chief executives confront. In addition to discussing the top priorities for CXOs, the respondents weighed in on overarching leadership issues.

Many indicated they did not think chiefs effectively communicated their priorities, or those of the Obama administration. One-third of survey respondents gave the chiefs a B or higher for communication and collaboration; a full 70 percent gave them a C or lower, with 14 percent failing chiefs for their communication skills.

"There isn't a good structure of communications trickling down," said one interviewee.

Many of those interviewed, who are career employees, said they frequently saw chief executives come up with big ideas but fail to focus on the long-term implementation necessary to turn those ideas into realities. Managers urged chiefs to get a good sense of the agency's capabilities before proposing pie-in-the-sky ideas.

"Most of the aspirations are good, but there's a tendency for them to come from an ivory tower," one manager said. "The closer you get to the shop floor, the further away and the less realistic some of those aspirations are. Many of us are just struggling to get the mail answered and keep things moving, and then we get these initiatives that are not grounded in a good understanding of those day-to-day challenges."

A lack of functional expertise and awareness of employees' challenges could hinder chief executives in their attempts to implement major changes. Less than 10 percent of respondents gave the chiefs an A in these areas; the majority gave the chiefs a C or lower for both functional expertise and understanding employee challenges.

Chief executives should lead the charge in keeping agency officials accountable, managers told GBC analysts. Too much pressure is put on performing a job quickly, often in time for a chief to see a finished product before moving on, according to interviewees. "We don't have time to do it right, but we have time to do it over and over and over," one manager said.

Both survey respondents and interviewees acknowledged the significant challenges awaiting all chiefs.

Chief acquisition officers are juggling a number of procurement challenges, none of which takes the clear lead in terms of priority. Survey respondents did identify defining inherently governmental and closely related functions as a top challenge, along with addressing the shortage of contracting officers and setting strong contract requirements.

Despite the Obama administration's push for contracting reform, 39 percent of respondents said the acquisition situation at their agency has deteriorated during the last two years, either somewhat or markedly.

Two big-picture priorities -- establishing consolidated, standardized business systems and simplifying the budget process -- top the list of challenges for chief financial officers, according to those surveyed. Forty-three percent believed the financial situation has stayed the same during the past few years.

Respondents were divided over whether information technology at their agencies improved in the last two years. Slightly more than one-third said they believed IT has improved and about the same portion said it has deteriorated. Interviewees identified enterprise IT systems as the top information technology challenge, saying there must be a unified approach to technology.

Respondents and interviewees cited protecting federal data from external threats as the top information security priority. But interviewees, in particular, said it was important that security measures did not unduly hinder their ability to perform their jobs.

Of all the chief function areas, respondents saw the most improvement in agency information security during the last two years. Forty-one percent of respondents reported seeing some recent improvement.