Leadership lessons from the grave

April 8

A  memorial service at the Riverside National Cemetery on Saturday, March 8, 2014. (AP Photo/The Press-Enterprise, Stan Lim)

Steve Muro heads the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), the division of the Department of Veterans Affairs that manages 131 national cemeteries and provides burial services for military veterans and eligible family members. The NCA recently received the highest rating ever in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, beating out all other federal agencies and even top corporations. Muro discussed his on-the-job experiences and his leadership principles 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. Has there been a particular experience during your time with the National Cemetery Administration that made the biggest impact on you?

A. I was doing the cemetery representative’s job in California, and my first assignment was the baby of a veteran. The baby who died was less than a year old, and it was hard. There was no hearse. The family car opened and the mother was holding the casket in her lap. I realized then what we did at the national cemetery for those who serve this nation, the veterans and their dependents, was special. I also understood that we don’t have a second chance to do it right. We have to do it right the first time. This is something that we stress, and I stress, to all of our employees — we only have one chance to get it right.

Q. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

A. The National Cemetery Administration had the highest score on the American Customer Satisfaction Index ever achieved by any private or public institution. Our 2013 score can be attributed to the amazing employees who do so much to ensure that the people we serve are as satisfied as possible whenever they interact with us. This year we scored 96 out of 100, which was an improvement on our previous high-record score, so we were very pleased.

Q. After achieving high customer satisfaction, how do you maintain it?

A. We try to be a learning organization. Part of that is conducting and utilizing the data from our annual assessments. We look to see how we can continue to improve the services that we provide to veterans and their loved ones. Our employees are the ones who meet the families, day in and day out. We provide employee training so that they know how to be customer friendly and we set goals. I encourage establishing a clear focus, setting clear expectations and having clear communication so employees can understand what they are being held accountable for.

Q. Even with the high customer-satisfaction results, there have been some errors recently regarding military graves. What steps have you taken to address those errors?

A. We’re 150 years old, and after we discovered the errors, we decided that for the first time we were actually going to go out and do a full review. So we took a full inventory of all our gravesites to ensure everything was where it was supposed to be and, yes, we found some errors. Out of the 3.2 million gravesites we take care of, we found 778 errors in total, which is a rate of less than .0003 percent, but we know that one error is too much. We are ensuring greater accountability so this doesn’t happen again.

Q. How did you restore trust after these incidents?

(Steve Muro; courtesy of the National Cemetery Administration)
(Steve Muro; courtesy of the National Cemetery Administration)

A. We were open with the errors that we found. We notified the families where we could reach them, and we let them know what we could do to correct it. I think that builds trust in the families. In the most recent survey that we did with the families, we learned that 98 percent of the next of kin say that they are willing to tell other people of the service that was provided to them, and they trust us in the work that we’re doing. Whenever we make mistakes, we acknowledge them and are transparent about them.

Q. Based on your experiences, what advice do you have for other federal leaders?

A. One thing that I always tell my cemetery directors is that you need to learn what your people do. You don’t need to become an expert in every trade, but you should at least understand the work that they do so that you can effectively lead them. Another thing that I tell my managers is that they should always be mentoring one or two people to build a future of leaders. It’s important that when we retire, we leave behind people who will keep bringing the organization forward, and will take it to the next level.

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