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GovLoop Leader Challenge: What Would YOU Do?

Greetings GovLoopers (GovLoopies?):

In an effort to get the conversations flowing about leadership strategies that work, at work, from time to time we’ll post a ‘hypothetical’ leadership challenge here on this discussion board. Our goal is to ask what would you do as Government Leaders in a given situation.

As with all things leadership, this is an art – not a science, and there is no one right way to answer the question. Our goal is to get people talking, and considering these thorny issues from more than one perspective; maybe even to learn a leadership tactic or two.

Others should feel free to post their own “hypothetical” situations as well – I’m sure you all have amazing experiences where you can change the names to protect the innocent 🙂 I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with!

Here is our first GovLoop Leader Challenge:

Ann is a supervisor of a team of 8 employees. Ann is a lucky manager – the majority of her employees are bright, enthusiastic and innovative thinkers, and all are very good workers who get their jobs done on time, and very professionally. Her team is mostly made up of Millennials that have less than 5 years of government experience, but there are a few individuals who are in the Baby Boomer generation and have worked in public service for over 20 years. Ann’s team has a great reputation throughout the agency, and Ann has a great reputation for building productive teams.

Ann is a good manager – she is committed to providing her people with career development opportunities. To that end, a few months ago Ann tasked Jim, one of her ‘young shining stars’, to be a Team Leader for an important project that has strategic impact on the division’s work. Ann thought this assignment would help Jim prepare for what she thinks is his inevitable move into management. Jim is ecstatic about the opportunity; he has a lot of great ideas about this project and is excited about implementing them. He accepts the challenge head on.

The rest of the team is not as enthusiastic as Jim is about his “Team Lead” designation. Ann has noticed resistance and resentment to Jim’s efforts from the other team members. She has also noticed that Jim, who has always been a high-performer, is struggling with the leadership aspects of being a Team Lead: he tends to bulldoze his colleagues, or just does their portion of the work himself, to meet deadlines and show results. This has lead other team members to be lazy, knowing that Jim will pick up the slack; and in turn, Jim has become resentful that he is doing all of the work on this important division level project single-handedly.

Though the work is getting done, it seems that Ann’s carefully crafted team is about to self-destruct! What would you advise Ann to do in this situation?

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Ooh…love this one.

If I was Ann, I’d take Jim aside and try to coach him. I think the goal is to grow Jim as a leader and manager so he needs to learn from this situation.

Rather than focus on the outcomes of this project where Ann could sweep in and help co-lead it…I think on this one, it’s about coaching Jim and letting him learn from experience

Corey McCarren

I like to think that openness is a great way to solve a problem. I would facilitate a frank but civil discussion if I were Ann to figure out what’s going on that is negatively affecting the team. I like people that are mature about well placed and positive criticism, so I would hope my team is built of people like that, especially Jim, who is likely to face the most criticism since it is him in disagreement with a group of several people.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great case! First, Ann should let the team pick the leader for projects. That way, team members are committed to team success. All the work should not be assigned to the leader. All team members should be expected to participate and be held accountable for producing results. “Lazy” employees should never be tolerated. Team members should also be evaluating the effectiveness of their designated leader and take responsibility for correcting him/her or replacing him/her, not necessarily the official supervisor.

Kristina Nelson

It seems to me that part of growing into a leadership position and assuming additional responsibility meaning taking a step back and understanding that a successful outcome is only one part of the project. Driving full-speed toward a successful outcome with only that goal in mind can limit important collaborative processes, such as understanding why the project is important to the team as a whole, getting critical buy-in from stakeholders, establishing a project charter with established goals, objectives, roles and responsibilities, measures, timelines and anticipated outcomes is every bit as important as the end result. Leaders understand that this collaboration is critical to the process and requires careful planning and preparation to ensure all team members are fully on-board and committed to success.

Dave Bell

This is the situation in which Ann can let her leadership genius shine. Part of being a successful leader is follower development. It appears as if Ann may have tried to teach Jim how to swim by throwing him into the deep end of the pool. Ann needs to take Jim aside and use her internal consultant skills to help Jim and the team succeed. Ann could ask Jim some thought provoking questions such as:

• “Do you notice any resentment of or resistance to any of your efforts? If so, why do you think that is and what do you think we could do?”

• “Do you feel as if you are considering the inputs of the other team members? If no, why not and what do you think we should do?”

• “Are you performing some of the other team members’ work? If so, why don’t you trust them to get their work done properly and on time?

After having a friendly heart-to-heart with Jim, Ann should explain that while management is about getting the job correctly and on time, leadership concerns not only showing results but also developing others, increasing morale and productivity, and building a better tomorrow through and with people.

David Dejewski

Great set up, Megan! This could be fun!

You only asked about Ann, but I see potentially three “patients” in this scenario. The fact that there are three provides some interesting options.

From a leadership perspective, the first group – the Team Members – may be struggling with some fundamental self-management issues (See my post titled The First Gate to Leadership: Managing Yourself). It’s unclear from the scenario, but part of good team play is allowing others the opportunity to make mistakes and not begrudging them advancement. There may be some work to do here on the Team environment, on communication, or the advancement system in general. This may include modification of the awards system, reshuffling of the team, team building exercises… we won’t know until we understand the individuals and dynamics involved. Different teams respond differently. Every situation is unique.

This is just something to keep an eye on. I’ve found that occasionally, one of the Team Members can rise above the issue and act as a catalyst to bring stability and peace back to the environment. Ann has an opportunity here to identify new future leaders for the pipeline.

Jim, the second “patient” in this scenario, is clearly displaying some of the warning signs that are common to people transitioning through the second gate of leadership: from managing Self to managing others. Difficulty delegating, failure to build a team, a single-minded focus on getting work done… A closer examination will reveal which of the issues Jim is struggling most with. Ann has some work to do here as a coach, but Jim also has to re-calibrate what it means to manage himself.

Jim suddenly finds himself having to forge new social contracts. He needs to learn new skills like monitoring, paying attention, making himself available, embracing the new role of “boss” and all that means, teaching people to work properly vs trying to fix others mistakes himself, and taking ownership of his team’s success. He’s spending his time differently. His values are shifting from getting results through personal proficiency to getting results through others. He’s having to learn how to pay attention to and encourage the success of his direct reports, the success of his unit, discipline and the new expectations on himself – all while learning to display visible integrity.

I’m not worried about what I see here yet. This is a very normal part of the transition process. How Jim, Ann, and the team respond to it is what is important.

Ann may be (we don’t have enough information here) going through a transition herself. This may be her first time moving from managing others to managing managers. We have to keep an eye on her too. She may be learning new skills or deepening skills she already has in delegation, performance monitoring, coaching and feedback, communication and climate setting, relationship building, and possibly others (like deploying resources) depending on how the organization is set up.

Coaching is important for Ann. She should be reaching out for it from her organization and her organization should be extending themselves to ensure she gets it. As an alternative, she can be connecting with a mentor. Mentors are great resources if they are available.

Ann needs to learn (if she doesn’t already know) how to train her Team Leaders, how to hold first-line managers accountable for managerial work, how to prioritize and deploy resources across teams, how to manage silos, and how to adjust (again) to the way she manages herself. Without getting into what I might actually do for Ann in this case (not the question you asked), I would advise her to meet regularly with her coach and to put some thought into her plan for helping the other two “patients” in this

Kenneth Wells

I would probably advise Ann to first meet with Jim to see what he perceives are challenges that he is facing as team leader. Later, Ann shouldl meet with the rest of the group to see why they don’t like Jim as a team leader. Next, get both parties together to hash out their differences and see if something can come out of it. I’m sure the Baby Boomers are resentful for having someone much younger than they are act as team leader, and Jim probably doesn’t ask them for any advice or other tidbits that may help make his job easier.

Preston G. Baker

Ann has made a mistake as one responder has already stated by “throwing Jim into the deep end of the pool to see if he would sink or swim.” What is happening is that the “baby boomers” are essentially standing on the edge of the pool watching Jim flounder without offering him the life line which is their considerable years of experience in the unit. They could assist their “team leader” but resent being led by this young inexperienced lieutenant and are not going to volunteer any help.

Ann must bring the entire team together and first, tactfully admit that the original team structure was a mistake on her part. She should “apologize” to Jim for overwhelming him by putting too much on his “plate”. Most importantly she needs to utilize the pride this unit has in its reputation as an exceptional team. Teams or unit’s put a great deal of time and effort into building such a productive and well respective team. They will not want to have their hard earned reputation start to slipp away. Get the baby boomer’s to buy into a restructured project, divided into smaller segments or tasks, where Jim can work directly with each of them on those tasks or specific areas of responsibility. The “baby boomers” will no longer feel overlooked since they will take the lead in the completion of the smaller project segments. Jim can remain the overall project leader and he will benefit by learning from his more experienced co-workers. Again, the pride the unit has in its reputation can be used as the “glue” to bring the unit back together and get the project back on line. As the leader Ann basically must take one for the team but the overall benefit for Ann will be the restoration of the unit’s cohesiveness and the develpoment of a young staffer who will learn a great deal in the process.

Megan Libby

Great thoughts all! Terry, I think I’m going to steal that idea about the members communally selecting a team lead-that’s a great idea! And Dave, your thoughts about the importance of follower development are a great take on this scenario.

Keep those ideas coming!

James E. Evans, MISM, CSM

I really like this discussion……


Ann means well. But, bottom line, Jim has not proven that he has the skill set to manage an “important project that has strategic impact on the division’s work.” That’s a lot of pressure on this fine lad. He need’s to grow into that arena. But, the play button has been pushed. This is what I think Ann should do.

  • Talk to Jim one-on-one.
    • Find out why he thinks the members are sitting on their hands. A lot will be learned from the way that Jim views the problem (and why he’s chosen to do things alone). Obviously he knows there is one.
  • Talk to each team member one-on-one.
    • Ann should frame the conversation casually. The goal here is to get each member to share their view on the project dynamics. If Ann is as good as this article implies; the team members will be willing to share their good and bad observations. If Jim is indeed the challenge, his name will be the main topic of discussion from the members as a whole. I can guarantee that. If his name is not the main topic; i’ll be surprised.


Nothing in the article indicates that the issue lies among the baby boomers, 5-year old’s or even Jim. Just that there is a problem. Ann’s first job is to get their individual perspectives. Then she can develop a strategy to jump start the team productivity.

Dannielle Blumenthal

Wow, this is a good one. Most of the comments deal effectively with the individual/leadership aspects pretty well; my focus is more on the social-structural aspects that Preston (group dynamics) and Kristina (process issues) allude to.

Basically my take comes from the fact that the “team lead” doesn’t have real authority over the team (as in performance evaluation) and that the team members know this. They also don’t respond well to the additional layer of pseudo-management. So it is a mistake to establish this role in the first place.

In fact it is a faulty assumption that every group, even a temporary project, must have an individual leader – often the leadership role brings up subconscious reactions of envy, rivalry, passivity, etc. among group members.

It’s different if you assign a project manager or a facilitator – both of these roles respect the authority of the team members while coordinating their work.

So I would change the structure of the work group and the process:

* Ann should hold a meeting where she oversees the team brainstorming the various aspects of the project to be completed, and explains that she is assigning Jim to be the facilitator/project manager.

* She should frame his role as one of making them look good – helping them to meet deadlines, solving problems, removing roadblocks, etc.

* She should explain that he will be communicating about the project status with her so that they all don’t have to chase her down and provide input one at a time.

Once they get going Ann should hold regular check-in meetings with the group to see how people are feeling about the process. If problems crop up (e.g. bad interpersonal dynamics) she should deal with this one-on-one with the employee and not delegate this to Jim.

Most things can be dealt with on the group level before they cause problems on the individual level. (And the issue of Boomer vs. Millennial is not trivial – these two groups have very different cultures and workstyles that do need to be addressed in a group setting.)

It is interesting to me that we have such a bias in favor of getting the work done that we forget to question how we do it or how we feel while we are carrying it out. Even when it interferes with the team’s productivity. Leading to faulty assumptions about what is wrong, when something goes wrong.

Andrew Krzmarzick

I think I’m with James here. Depending on the size of the team, I’d do a little coaching with each of the key players. But I’d also urge a facilitated conversation as a team. Help them come to a place where they can give open and honest feedback that is perceived as constructive – always in light of accomplishing our goals most effectively together.

Gordon Lee Salmon

Megan thanks for this case study. For me this is a perfect example of Ann faiIng to properly charter the team and not preparing Jim for the assignment. There is confusion about expected outcomes and how to ensure success. A coach could work with all three “patients” or more likely with Ann and Jim. Norms and rules of engagement need to be developed by the team as well as clarification of roles and responsibilities.

Carol Davison

How did Ann detemine that Jim had leadership potential? Did she determine that the group wasn’t jealous of Jim’s promotion? Is she coaching him? Allowing him to fail?

Megan Libby

@Dannielle: I love it! “pseudo-management”, what a terrific description of a team lead: I have a colleague that likes to say Team Lead is a role that has all the responsibility of the manager, and all the authority of a camp counselor.

Since the situation is a hypothetical, I can’t say what the real outcome is (unless I make it up!) – but my two cents is, this is both a challenge and an opportunity, for BOTH Ann AND Jim. For Ann, she has the chance to try on her second-line coach hat by engaging Jim in a positive way. I would hesitate to advise her to swoop in and save the situation; she’d be better off coaching Jim to expand his definition of success from “project well done” to “project well done by an engaged and talented team”.

Those in management know that supervision can be a lonely road, and perhaps the hardest lesson new supervisors have to learn is the value of getting the work done through others. In public service, where so many employees come to work every day with the desire to contribute good product to society (and yes, I do believe the vast majority of public employees feel this way), perhaps this lesson is hardest for the public sector supervisor. I personally would advise Ann to be patient, show confidence in her decision to make Jim the Team Lead, and to coach him to success for the good of all the team-while simultaneously taking a hard look at whether she has shown equal commitment to the development of her other employees (perhaps that is where the resentment is coming from???).