Grant Thornton Public Sector’s Ariane Whittemore on Creativity, Empathy and Change Management in Federal Leadership
Drawing on three decades of experience within the DoD, Grant Thornton’s Public Sector director offers insight on how passionate and compassionate leadership can usher in an era of innovation.
Ariane Whittemore is proud to tell you that when it comes to federal service, she’s had a fascinating career; having held a number of diverse leadership roles. Whittemore, who now acts as director for Grant Thornton’s Public Sector practice, spent more than 30 years at the Department of Defense, being whisked away wherever she was needed across the Navy and Marine Corps. This is because Whittemore served for two decades as a member of the Senior Executive Service, a set of individuals with top-notch executive skills who act as links between Presidential appointees and the rest of the federal workforce, filling in to provide guidance and management wherever they are needed.
Having held no less than seven titles during her time at the DoD, Whittemore has amassed functional expertise in financial management; DoD Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution; logistics, human capital management, and much more. Now, having turned her talents to the private sector, she offers insight into how government leaders can lead with empathy and creativity to embrace change, improve operations and guide their workforce into the future.
Can you begin by speaking to how your 30 years of experience in the public sector has shaped your leadership style?
I had a wonderful federal career and I'm having a wonderful career in the private sector, too. They are really very complementary. Much of what I learned in my federal career about leadership has helped me in my private sector career. And, much of what I have learned about business capabilities since joining the private sector has direct links back to what I did in DoD. I wish I knew during my federal career the breath of technology, business, and information sharing solutions in the private sector. It is incredibly fun and exciting to bring that knowledge back to my former colleagues in the public sector.
In both the public and private sectors, it’s all about leadership. In terms of leadership style, the public sector and, especially the military, is a very hierarchical organization: The leader is in charge and everyone does what the leader directs. In the private sector, I found that the leader sets the tone and pace but it’s more about influence, creating teams that choose to follow the leader. And so, having a strong leadership style in which you set the tone and work to get buy-in from stakeholders across an organization is critically important in the private sector as well as the public sector. In the private sector, you can't make anyone follow you. They have to want to follow you and respect your leadership.
How have you taken those principles to the private sector?
Both in the public and private sector, I’ve found that there are several leadership principals that are critically important for success. The first is: Treat everyone with respect. Listen to everyone in your organization because no one has a monopoly on great ideas. What might start out as a kernel of an idea can be molded and turned into something wonderful.
Second, empower your team. Everybody wants to be empowered to do well and to take action. It’s incredible what ideas can come out of people when you empower them to take action and focus them on the right path.
Leaders also need to be willing to accept responsibility for failures and give credit for success. It is never a successful strategy to blame failures on your subordinates; it’s about giving people the opportunity to succeed and not punishing them for failure because they need to feel that they have the room to try again.
Leaders need to be able to listen, as well. Senior leaders are often uncomfortable asking for advice because they think they have to be the ones that have all the answers, but the individuals that work for you are thrilled to be asked their opinion or for insight; it demonstrates that you’re relying on their expertise and helps create a culture of trust.
Last, be positive and enthusiastic.
Leaders set the tone; if you’re happy and positive, the people around you are going to thrive.
What tools and processes are you helping to introduce to your public sector clients that you wish you’d had during your time in the public sector?
During my time in the private sector, I have learned a tremendous amount about tools and processes that were not familiar to me when I was in the public sector. When I was in the public sector, there was a tendency to use the same tools and processes that we had been using forever. They worked well, and so there wasn’t really an impetus to look for a better way to do business or generate value. But better tools are out there: business intelligence tools, data analytics tools and processes, technology business management, evidence-based decision-making and robotic process automation. All of these are tools, processes and techniques that I wish I’d had when I was in the Navy and Marine Corps because they would have made my job and the jobs of my staff easier, free us from tedious tasks, like inputting and manipulating data, to really focus on the substantive work of analyzing data and making recommendations based on the data.
Moreover, these tools and practices around data can help leaders make better-informed decisions. You’d be surprised what insights you can gather from your data.
Cultural pushback is often a barrier to innovation in the public sector. What advice can you offer public sector leaders looking to introduce transformative tools and processes?
First, keep pushing forward. Change is not easy and it’s important to keep in mind that it is often resisted because people are used to and comfortable with the status quo.
Putting in place effective change management processes with continuous communications — including listening to and addressing staff concerns — will help with the resistance to change. People need to understand why a change is happening. Once they understand how it is impacting them directly, the value to their day-to-day operation and the way it will improve their processes, they can begin to embrace change. In this way, pilot projects can be very effective in helping to demonstrate the value of something new.
Can you speak to your experience with crisis management and strategic planning? Given your expertise, what advice can you offer those in government contending with the COVID-19 crisis?
My experience with crisis management came on September 11, 2001. I was in my office at the Pentagon about 90 feet and three stories above where the airplane hit, and I suddenly found myself in the midst of a crisis. The first thing you have to do in a crisis is to deal with the issues at hand. We had to make sure we got all of our people out of the office safely. We had to secure classified information and, essentially, help to keep everyone calm and safe.
But it’s important to note that it wasn’t just the immediate crisis we were dealing with, there was also going to be September 12th, and we had to start looking ahead, understanding and planning for the next phase of operations and figuring out how we were going to move forward.
For those dealing with the COVID-19 crisis — or any crisis, I’d say that it’s important to keep both in mind. It’s not just about the crisis at hand, which certainly needs to be addressed, but also about looking to the future and planning for what’s coming next.
In what ways have passion and imagination shaped your experience in working for and with the public sector?
Life is too short not to be passionate and seize every opportunity. For leaders, especially, it’s important to lead with passion.
It also helps you think more creatively about innovation and usher in change.
What is your vision for the future — both for yourself and for the public sector as a whole?
I think we always need to be reaching for the stars. It’s corny to say, but I really believe that we always need to be trying new things, innovating and looking for ways to improve. Not everything will be immediately successful, but we need to always be looking for ways to break out of the status quo and keep pushing the envelope, imagining and innovating, because that’s how we’re going to continue to do better.
This content is made possible by our sponsor Grant Thornton; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Government Executive’s editorial staff.