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13 Leadership Tips from “Fed Coach” Tom Fox, Part 1

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Last year, GovLoop hosted more than a half dozen online training events designed to help you advance your government career. In 2012, we’re kicking off another series of valuable events and programs that we hope will vault your career. The first one is coming up next Thursday and will be titled “Extreme Makeover: Government Resume Edition.” It will feature GovLoop’s two Rock Your Resume reviewers – Government Career Expert Camille Roberts and Paul Binkley, the Director of Career Services at The George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration.

Please click here to register for that event.


In order to give you a sense of the caliber of speakers and insights that typify these training events, I wanted to share some of the questions and answers that stemmed from a September 2011 session with Tom Fox, the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service and Washington Post “Federal Coach” columnist.

There were well over 40 questions from the crowd and Tom did what he could to respond in real-time, but it was impossible to cover it all – so he graciously offered his insight to many of the remaining questions after the event. I’m sharing the first half of those in this blog post and the rest in in a post early next week.

1. What are the major qualities of an amazing leader – how are they set apart from just a regular manager?

Tom: Extraordinary leaders set themselves apart by the degree to which they possess the leadership characteristics defined in our Leading Innovation in Government report. Just take the characteristic we call “navigator” as an example. An average leader understand the system she operates in and uses it effectively. An extraordinary leader, on the other hand, works well within the system while also working to change the system for the better. If you’re interested, you can check out our report to see the different levels of performance relative to each characteristic.

2. Do you have the same recommendations for dotted line managers – for people who must pull together different teams depending on the issue at hand?

Tom: At the end of the day, all of us our dotted line managers. While positions and titles offer leaders some authority, the best leaders understand that they must articulate a clear vision, establish a line of sight between employees and that vision, and then movtivate them to perform. Those same elements are true whether you have formal supervisory authority or informal authority.

3. Can you suggest some off-duty leadership development opportunities?

Tom: For anyone interested in off-duty leadership development opportunities, you’re making a good choice to find opportunites like the GovLoop/YGL training series of webinars. In addition, I would strongly suggest volunteering with organizations like YGL or perhaps a community-based organization. To borrow from President Teddy Roosevelt, you learn far more by being in the arena than by sitting on the sidelines. Some of my best leadership development occurred while volunteering — and taking on greater responsibilites — with community organizations in Fairfax County. You’ll do good for the community and support your professional development.

4. The term “Leader” is often somewhat controversial. Many believe that you also need “followers’ on a team. What are your thoughts on the term, “leaders”?

Tom: Even the best leaders need to learn to follow effectively sometimes. Every team needs leaders and followers, but it’s best to figure out when you should occupy either role. If, for example, you’re the formal team leader. You may assume that you’re the leader 24/7. While that may be true technically, you also need to know when to delegate authority to those with more expertise on a given topic. Secure leaders should be comfortable stepping aside and following the lead of others when circumstances warrant.

5. We know through surveys that we need more effective managers. How do you change the mindset of someone who’s managed the same way for years and isn’t necessarily open to change?

Tom: Changing the mindset of an experienced leader is difficult at best and impossible at worst. If you hope to have an impact, I would encourage you to sit down with your manager and review the findings from your latest employee survery. Perhaps you could offer to organize a focus group/action-planning team that you can suggest would report to him or her. The data, coupled with your proactive ideas, might help move his managment style in a more modern, positive direction.

6. Probably one of the biggest obstacles in getting new ideas to be considered is getting them approved by people in upper management who are set in their ways or think in terms of ways which are not “with the times.” How can one overcome something like this?

Tom: To overcome senior leadership resistance to new ideas, you need to: (1) treat your new idea like a second job; (2) engage others in developng your idea; and (3) stay persistent (i.e., not stubborn) in the face of resistance. Too often folks with new ideas expect others to jump in excitement at their brilliance. In fact, senior leaders often just see a whole new effort that requires fighting for resources and time. To overcome that resistance, you’ll need to carve out some time to layout some implementations plans that demonstrate that any costs are worth the ultimate benefit. To that end, you’ll want to engage others in developing your idea — particualrly those influence your senior leader. The bigger your coaltion, the better your idea will become over time. Finally, I find that too many people give up to easily. If you’re certain your idea is worth implementation, listen to the feedback you receive and continue improving upon your idea until it prevails.

7. How can I inspire a staff person who is angry about not getting a promotion? I know he deserves it but I have no control over getting an upgrade during these hard fiscal times.

It can be difficult to motivate someone who — whether rightly or wrongly — has been passed over for a promotion. If you value this person as much as it sounds, you must be honest with him about the circumstances without blaming your senior leaders. In addition, you might find other avenues for rewarding his effort. Could you help him find a senior leader mentor in your agency? Could you identify a conference or other training opportunity? Could you provide him more flexibiltiy on the job? Talk with your employee about what motivates him beyond the promotion and then make every effort to find at least one positive step you can take to demonstrate your commitment and appreciation.

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