What should young federal leaders consider when looking for a role model at their agencies?
Ask first, “Who can I best learn from? Who exemplifies effectiveness at the level I’m at and the level I want to get to?” Become a student of effective people. It’s really finding those people—not just one role model, because different people might exemplify different elements of what you need to become. Take the time to ask, “Given where I want to go, what does effectiveness look like at that level? Who exemplifies that effectiveness and what is it that they do exactly that makes them so effective?”
How can federal leaders cultivate the next generation of leaders?
There is no substitute for apprenticeship. Much of leadership training comes from role-modeling, mentorship and apprenticeship arrangements. You have to recognize that there really are severe limitations to what formal "training" can do for you. Also keep in mind that some forms of training are much better than others. I came out of the Harvard tradition of case-based education, where you can do a lot with cases. But the real key is to build the right advice and counsel network around developing leaders. I'm not sure that enough attention is given to thinking about the advice and counsel network that surrounds those high-potential people.
What are some critical transitions for developing leaders?
The reality is that different competencies are required at different levels. Understanding what those abilities are, and how to adapt yourself to the demands of the next level, that's the most important thing you need to do to prepare yourself for promotion. Recognize too that some promotions are much harder than others. One tough transition is managing for the first time and learning the basics of supervising, working through others and performance management. If you ask people what are the toughest transitions that they've gone through, the move from individual contributor to manager ranks high on the list. Another tough transition is the move from functional to general management, or what I sometimes refer to as “enterprise leadership.” That’s typically a huge leap for people. Say you come up through the finance or operations arm of the organization, and you're very skilled in that particular area, but you're now being called upon to lead people that come from other functions. It's a very hard transition to go through.
What are the most important elements of success for federal leaders, and how can they best foster these elements in their agencies?
I focus on two core things. The first is the ability to create and communicate a vision to an organization. The communication part is as important, if not more important, than the vision and creation part. How do you establish the shining star that people are going to gravitate toward? That’s challenging in the current environment, and it’s especially challenging for leaders in the public sector because of the many compromises they have to make that make it harder to come up with a very clear mission. Second, I look at learning agility—the ability to enter a new situation, understand what's going on and focus on the key elements of the organizational environment, culture, politics and people.
How can federal leaders best prepare for a crisis?
There's some basic preparatory work that you need to do. Most important is having clear lines of authority when a crisis strikes. When I work with private-sector organizations, a point that I make is that the “normal” organizational structure, which tends to be de-centralized, serves them well during business time but is woefully inadequate when you're in a moment of crisis.
[In a crisis,] you need to be able to shift to a war-fighting organization. It’s essential to have clear lines of accountability, to know what the command structure looks like, because folks are going to war. Understanding there needs to be a parallel command structure—and having the ability to transition rapidly to that command structure when a crisis strikes—is key.
Then there is scenario planning. People say we can't foresee all the things that are going to happen, and that is absolutely true; but there are usually broad categories of things that can happen. I talk about crisis classes as opposed to specific crises. Where are crises likely to come from? Even if we can't be specific about future events, we can identify the classic things that can hit us over the head and then begin to develop some response thinking around those crisis classes. Think about it as almost like building blocks for crisis response—they don't have to be tuned to a particular crisis, they need to represent certain core capabilities that you need to respond to broad classes of crises.