David C. Williams is the inspector general for the U.S. Postal Service, the largest civilian federal agency, which has $67.1 billion in annual revenue. Williams manages a staff of more than 1,100 people nationwide who conduct independent audits and investigations for the USPS. He began his career as a special agent with the Secret Service and later served as inspector general for five different federal agencies.

What lessons have you taken away from your experiences as an inspector general for five different federal agencies?

I’ve really developed a respect for performance metrics and goals. It helps you understand what a good investment you are for the government, or it tells you that you need to increase the value that you have. But what we’ve discovered, oddly enough, is that when there are reliable performance metrics and goals, it also provides employees with a great deal of choice and frees up managers. Instead of focusing on somebody’s behavior, managers can rely on those metrics, freeing them to do higher-order things like stakeholder conversations and planning and construction of solutions that have a deeper impact.

What are the barriers to innovation in the workplace, and how can federal workers overcome them?

A barrier I’ve come to recognize as being destructive to innovation is viewing work in incremental segments along an assembly line. I think it’s much better to keep your eye on the big picture and stay in touch with the world of emerging ideas. I also found that fostering an environment of experimentation helps. There’s always a solution, and there’s always a much better and fresher way than what we currently have. Particularly in a world that’s changing so rapidly, you should constantly be looking for that better way.

I don’t believe that people sitting alone will come up with great thoughts. Staying in your office is probably the worst [way] for coming up with a fresh solution. I would advise people to talk to everybody, particularly people that are frustrated. You can’t flee from concerned stakeholders; they’re the best allies for coming up with innovative ideas. We talk a lot here about maintaining a childlike curiosity, regardless of your age, and a constant obsession with what’s next, what’s coming at us and what’s out there on the horizon. The job ought to be thrilling, and if we don’t ruin it, it will be.

How do you maintain contact with your entire workforce?

The most important thing is outrunning the rumor mill and making sure that people hear from us. [It’s like] the old Monty Python series where there was a minister of misinformation; it feels like every office has one of those.

We have a daily and weekly publication that briefs everybody on the good and the bad news, and I visit with my field offices and have actual conversations with employees. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet when bad things are happening; if you can get there fast with the truth, everybody relaxes.

Our managers also know it’s important that they pass down messages from headquarters, but it’s also very important that they pass on the feelings, frustrations or the desires for change from their office to headquarters. As a matter of fact, that’s probably the most valuable thing a manager could do here. We try very hard to involve employees in the construction of solutions and to let people know that it’s their organization; it isn’t mine. I’m trying to serve them.

What is the best way to keep employees engaged and motivated?

Employees know that if they develop an idea with compelling support, it’ll carry the day. There’s a quote from Victor Hugo that I really love and use a lot: “No army on Earth is powerful enough to stop an idea whose time has come.”

The employees also know that if they’re out there for the American people, we’re going to be there for them, no matter what comes at them. We’re in this together.

What do you consider to be a critical event — either educational or experiential — to your becoming the leader you are today?

It would probably go all the way back to when I was serving in Vietnam.

There was a captain that I worked for, an Italian guy. We were in one long siege and managed to get ourselves surrounded in a small camp at one point, but he never lost his smile and calm about him.

He always [had] a kind of twinkle in his eye, like, “Maybe if we’re lucky we might get a chance for a little adventure out of this.” You can’t stage that — you’re a courageous leader or you’re not. He impressed me, and I try to remember the effect his demeanor had on me. I do my best to remember that captain and how much he helped all of us.

Subhed goes here asfagsfkjakjsgfajksfgkasgfkajf