Improving your skills as a federal leader


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January 31, 2013

William B. Eimicke is a professor of public management and the founding director of the Picker Center for Executive Education of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He has helped create and direct a number of executive training programs, served as a management consultant to government and private organizations, and has held posts in the New York City and New York state governments. Eimicke spoke with Tom Fox, who is a guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

What are the attributes that make for a great federal leader?

One attribute is what I call neutral competence, or knowing the nuts and bolts of what you are responsible for and communicating it without politics. Secondly, communication is essential. People in high places don’t read four pages, much less fifty. You must communicate complex issues in a short time and in language policymakers understand.

The third attribute is the way you work with others. You must be a great team member and a great team leader — and switch between the two. Fourth is to know the organization’s basic processes. Understand the way the budget works as well as procurement and human resources. If you don’t know how the process works, even if you have a lot of great ideas people want to sign onto, you won’t be able to shepherd them through to implementation.

What advice do you have for federal leaders in these tight budgetary times?

One is making the process work better by focusing on quality and speed. There’s a lot to be done that doesn’t cost any money. There are programs that could be providing a lot more benefit at the citizen level if we streamline the processes.

The second is focusing on customer service. When you deal directly with a citizen or people who represent citizens, treat them the way you want your family to be treated. Focus on developing systems within your agency so that your public-facing people are really helpful and respectful, because that affects how people think about government. Thirdly, you can leverage how much can get done by combining experts together and working as teams. Lastly, identify the three most important things you do as an organization and focus on those.

How can leaders help their organizations succeed?

It starts with a strategic plan. Step two is realigning your budget so it reflects the priorities of your strategic plan. Step three is accountability, performance measures which track if you’re moving forward. The Einstein of management is Peter Drucker, who said if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Keep it simple and focus on what’s key and you can do miraculous things.

What strategies can leaders use to foster innovation in their agencies?

Most people in organizations are against innovation. They think they know how to do their job — that will change, and they may not know how to do the new job. Transparency and clear strategy, including having everybody involved in the development of the innovation from the beginning, is key. Right away you must involve people from all levels of the organization and form a task force to say, “This is what we are thinking. What do you think? How will it work and how won’t it work?” I’m not arguing for workplace democracy. The message is, “I’m the boss and we are going to innovate in this area, so help me innovate better because without your help, it’s not going to get done.” 

How important are ethics to being an effective leader?

Most people in public service are mission driven. They are not in it to make money, because they want to make the world a better place. You want to be ethical so you can maintain support of your troops. The best way to motivate people in public service is by doing the right things. That’s where your army comes from. Your reputation is your most valuable asset and once you damage it, you almost never get it back. With the media we have these days, everybody with a cell phone is a journalist. It’s hard to get away with things, so don’t do it.

Who are some of your heroes?

New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has been dedicated to providing housing for low-income people, particularly people at the very bottom. It has been something that has been with him all of his adult life and he never gives it up. Then there is Kathy Callahan, who started at the Environmental Protection Agency in 1971 as an assistant and ultimately worked up to the number one non-political position in her regional office. She came in at the lowest part of the organization, learned budget, learned the organization, learned management and rose to the top of her field just by working hard and being dedicated. Finally my mentor, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, for his ethics, integrity, intellect and compassion.

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