On Leadership: The Federal Coach

Four leadership lessons from 'American Idol'

"American Idol" judges Steven Tyler, left, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson must be honest with contestants, even when it's uncomfortable.
"American Idol" judges Steven Tyler, left, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson must be honest with contestants, even when it's uncomfortable. (Michael Becker)
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post's On Leadership site jointly produce the Federal Coach, hosted by Tom Fox, director of the partnership's Center for Government Leadership. The goal is to "engage, inspire and learn from you, the federal worker, whether you are a new hire, a contractor or a manager at the highest level."

'American Idol's' verse on leadership

Fox's "American Idol" recently kicked off its 10th season with new judges and a new batch of hopeful contestants.

Although I know many people don't like to admit that they watch "American Idol," I am not one of them. I not only like the amazing singers and the ones who make me cringe, but I also take in a number of leadership lessons hidden within the show.

That's right - leadership lessons from "American Idol."

Specifically, federal managers can learn from the crucial conversations that the judges - Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler - have with each singer about his performance.

Now that the Top 24 finalists have been selected, the judges must have honest, direct and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about whether contestants are likely to achieve their hopes and dreams. For many federal leaders, these are just the type of conversations that they try to avoid at all costs.

So, what can federal managers learn from the likes of Randy Jackson about how best to approach and handle difficult conversations? Here are a few tips to help you get started:

l Make your motivations clear. Randy typically begins his feedback with a disarming remark: "You know I like you, right, dawg?" This opening lets the singer know that the critical feedback he's about deliver is intended to help improve the singer's performance. Without that indication of intent, singers could be left thinking that Randy just wants them off the show. As a federal manager, you need to state your intent clearly with employees before diving into difficult conversations. Are you trying to help them improve their performance, position them for a promotion or otherwise achieve their career goals? Start the conversation by letting them know your motivation upfront.

l Focus on facts first, not feelings. Even though I get tired of Randy telling the singers that they're "too pitchy," this feedback is based on fact and not on their sense of style or personality. When beginning what is likely to be a difficult conversation, it's better to start with the facts before the feelings to help establish a common understanding of the problems that you and your employees can work on together to overcome.

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