Dan Tangherlini is the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government’s acquisition and real estate management agency. He previously served as the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for management, chief financial officer and chief performance officer. Tangherlini spoke about federal management challenges with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. You were brought in to run the GSA after the controversy regarding lavish spending at employee conferences. How did you gain the organization's trust?
A. One of the ways you build trust is by demonstrating to people that you trust, respect and admire them. We had town hall conversations, both in person and virtual, with our regions. We had top-to-bottom review discussions with every program.
We also did something called the Great Ideas Hunt. We invited all members of the GSA family, regardless of rank or position, to share their ideas on how GSA can be the best organization it can be. We got over 600 ideas and more than 2,000 comments. Five hundred -plus ideas have been implemented, considered, discussed, thought about and continue to be worked on at a personal or organizational level. We saved over $5 million with the first round. We have now followed up a year later with a Great Ideas Hunt Round 2. It’s been a fantastic dialogue.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I am a person who tries to create an environment and a forum in which great ideas can be surfaced from all levels. Make it participatory, make it inclusionary and try to reduce the barriers imposed by hierarchy. In a federal environment, we have to do it together. Nothing happens alone. To the extent that I can put my finger on a management style, it really is around trying to make the whole greater than the parts.
What type of culture are you trying to foster at GSA?
I want to be outcome focused, performance based, continually learning and innovative. I would like us to know what we are trying to achieve. I’d like us to be able to measure it. I’d like us to continually come back and say, how are we doing in hitting our goals? I would like people to use that information to learn and iterate and say, okay, let’s do this better or maybe we need to change. I want it to feel like there is room and space and support for employees to be creative, experimenting and trying.
What is your biggest management challenge?
The biggest challenge right now is finding ways to improve the efficiency of this operation so that we can provide the highest possible value to the agencies we serve. The biggest management challenge in the federal government is a resource challenge. GSA is part of the solution to that puzzle. We just need to figure out a way to make sure our offerings meet the needs of the agencies.
Where do you do your best thinking when you’re trying to solve a difficult problem?
My best thinking has happened with other people when we really push each other, when we’re challenging each other, when we’re putting ideas up and when people feel like they can express their concerns about one idea or another. The best thinking I have been able to be a part of has always been with a group and a team, as we thought about things and took on challenges.
Are there game-changing opportunities in the federal government?
I think it’s a very challenging time to be a public servant, but that’s what makes the service more valuable. Every day, every one of us at every level of the organization has an opportunity to have a game-changing effect on the work we’re doing. The question is, do people feel like they have permission to make suggestions to change the game? Do people have the confidence to take the risk to change the game? Do people feel like they have the support and the network from within their work to explore and pursue the ideas? I think that’s a fundamental challenge--not only for an organization, but for everyone in the organization.