Useful New Year’s resolutions for federal leaders

January 13

(Illustration for Washington Post)

THE NEW YEAR provides a great opportunity for federal leaders to make fresh start.

Sure, the old problems have not gone away, new challenges undoubtedly will pop up and the politics of the nation’s capital will not be appreciably different in 2014 than they were in 2013. But what’s important on a personal level is how you handle these issues and the people you manage.

While every agency and situation is different, there are some common sense approaches that you can take to deal with day-to-day matters in the year ahead. You might call these suggestions New Year’s resolutions, but they all involve ways to better connect with your workforce and get the most out of your employees. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Focus on the positives. After years of talk about hiring freezes and budget cuts, it’s time to shift the focus to what you can control. As we learned from the agencies making positive gains in the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, leaders (and therefore agencies) who succeeded in improving employee satisfaction and commitment did so because they made steady, consistent progress around specific goals they could achieve, rather than trying to boil the ocean.

Pick a problem, any problem, and fix it. As a follow-up to the first resolution, leaders should consider tackling one problem facing employees within the first three months of the year. Whether it’s a breakdown in processes, relationships or communication, focus on a single issue that will make employees’ work lives a little easier and hopefully a little happier.

Reach out to another leader. I’m a fan of the old adage that everything that needs to be done is happening somewhere. Whatever challenge you’re trying to overcome, chances are good that someone else has found a solution. Reach out to a colleague in another department or government agency. Understand what he or she has done, and then work with your team to adopt a similar approach.

Communicate more often. Every year, we hear the same thing coming from our “Best Places to Work” research – employees say their leaders don’t communicate clearly or often enough. Increase transparency between the top floor and the front lines by holding regular team meetings, sending out weekly email updates and scheduling regular one-on-one meetings with your direct reports. For those of you who don’t believe you have enough time, remember that incredibly busy leaders like former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen and former CIA Director Michael Hayden always made the time to regularly communicate with their entire agencies using email or other forms of social media. You can do it too.

Celebrate success and take time to reflect on lessons learned. In these times of growing anti-government sentiment, it’s important to recognize the achievements and innovations of your top performers. Regularly let your employees know that they are appreciated for their performance and their contributions to your agency’s mission. Recognition doesn’t have to be in the form of a cash reward. A simple thank you for a job well done in a handwritten note can go a long way. And when you do run into trouble, don’t play the blame game. Use it as an opportunity to learn from one another by holding debriefs with the relevant folks.

Ask your team for ideas. Leaders too often feel they have to carry the burden of solving every problem their team encounters. Engage your colleagues about their insights, thoughts and solutions regarding a problem that needs to be solved. There’s probably a great deal you can learn from your employees’ expertise, and you never know where the conversation might lead. If no one steps up immediately – and there may be a fear factor among folks if this is a new approach – think about your people carefully and recruit a few individuals to the cause to demonstrate that you’re serious.

Here’s hoping 2014 will be a productive year in which your workforce is fully engaged, making progress to meet the agency’s mission and serving the interests of American public. If you have any examples of successful efforts in managing people and programs in the federal workspace, please share your stories in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Read also:

Tips from federal agencies with happy employees

Getting federal agencies to work better--and together

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