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Government Leadership: How To Be A Change Agent

In the federal government, change is a way of life for managers. At a minimum, change comes every four years with either a new administration, or with varying agendas from new political appointees and agency leaders if the incumbent administration has another bite at the apple. So has does real change take hold?

For starters, leadership is hard work. It requires the desire to transform an organization, and comes with its fair share of detractors, naysayers, and those who avoid change like the plaque because it encroaches on or erodes personal fiefdoms developed over years and normally at the expense of the mission and organization.

Transform yourself into a leader with these five keys of leadership:

1) Vision. Vision is one of the essential traits of a good leader, as a clear vision will provide theorganization the direction necessary to execute and create the desired change. Do not be afraid to think big, as without risk, any change will not be necessarily insightful, meaningful, or transformational. A vision statement should be created to set the tone for the change and the transformation on the horizon.

2) Communication. Vital to implementing your vision is to communicate it to the organization. However, it is here where the communication needs to be done strategically. Many initiatives fail or do not realize transformation because they do not have the momentum or buy in from the organization, and the leader does not grow the vision. Instead, the leader falls into the trap of the risk averse, change resistant nature of government and quits. People roll their eyes at the “initiative du jour,” and know they can simply wait it out until things go back to the way they were.

3) Planning. Being proactive rather than reactive is critical to success in the federal space, as communication from the organization tend to focus on why things cannot be done, instead of working towards the transformation of the leader’s vision. For leaders to be effective, they need to identify potential problems and solve them before they reach a point where the vision is stalled. Good leaders analyze, plan and adapt to overcome obstacles and ensure they empower their organization by spreading the vision through a What’s In It For Me approach to break down barriers to change.

4) Execute. No vision or change can be completed without proper execution. All the planning in the world will not be necessary if no action is taking place. Making decisions and ensuring that tasks are carried out is ultimately what leaders are trying to accomplish. Take action, and be seen taking action. Don’t sit behind a desk or have a closed-door policy.

5) Inspire. Being a change agent cannot be done in a vacuum. It requires the organization to see the benefits of the leader’s vision and to actively support it. Ultimately, leadership is about inspiring others to carry out your vision. Always act in a way that inspires, through integrity and respect. Bullying and change by force are not effective, and will ultimately undermine your long-term efforts.

Becoming an effective leader is never an easy proposition, especially for federal managers. It takes commitment and consistent effort to develop leadership skills in the face of adversity, which can seem overwhelming in the federal government. However, the ultimate goal is real impacts on people’s lives, completing the mission, and ultimately being a good steward of taxpayer funds. That is a worthwhile effort any real leader wanting change in government management can get behind.

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Great post! You might want to add a sixth attribute: empowering. Your first five traits are centered on the leader which is vital but for change to endure you need to have your employees put their energy and commitment into your vision. Coaching and mentoring their development into leaders is a great legacy of a good leader.

Jaime Gracia

@ Bill. No doubt the leader needs to empower, and that is what the inspire traits need to achieve. A vision is meaningless unless it can be executed by the organization, which requires the employees to buy into the vision. Without empowerment, any initiative will be another memo that will eventually be swept under the rug.

Ari B. Gerstman

Great post Jaime. I would add something about gaining the support of superiors. Resistance to change does not just afflict subordinates, but leadership too. Initial buy-in and support from superiors is key, especially to free up the necessary resources to make big changes. When employees see that budget and fte are devoted to executing a vision, it lends the initiative instant legitimacy.

Jaime Gracia

Having superiors support the efforts as a sponsor not only adds credibility to the effort, but hopefully adds momentum and resources to drive change as superiors will have a vested interest in success of the initiative. No one wants to put their neck out there without ensuring follow through and success, so support of the executive steering committee is also another factor. Thanks @Ari.

Tracy Botelho-Havermann

Jaime: Inspiring words….I am fortunate enough to be supervised by a true “Change Agent” here at USDA ARS. Your post is very valuable information and inspiration for those Fed Govt folks who are less fortunate and do not have effective leaders.

Tip Fallon

Very well-put, Jaime. And good point @Ari. I’d be curious to your insights on the “how” to execute the What’s in it for me approach, or engage those that are more resistant to change – at both the peer and management level. Good stuff!

Jaime Gracia

The “how” comes from active communication, and reinforcement of the message of What’s In It For Me. Sending out a memo stating “This is how things are now” and expecting people to blindly follow does not work and is unrealistic, not to mention was satirized in the movie Office Space and the TPS reports. Reinforcing the message through empowering the employees to contribute, to see how change affects their lives and performance, and to have them actively participate will get people on board and avoid what often occurs; eye-rolling, heavy sighs, and the statement “Here we go again.”