Leadership Strategies for Attracting Top Talent in Government

With the retirement rates across government continuing to increase, surveys show that recruiting and retaining qualified personnel is one of the most important issues facing government human resources managers today. While attracting top talent is typically seen as a function of human resource departments, managers and leaders also play a critical role in attracting talent to their organization.

Have you ever worked for a manager who you would follow if they left the department or organization? What is it about these leaders who consistently attract and retain top talent?

Liz Wiseman analyzed data from more than two hundred leaders and documented her learning in the book Multipliers. Her research showed that in any organization, there are leaders that we call Talent Magnets – people who both attract top talent and fully utilize the existing intelligence and talent around them. The best talent flock to work for Talent Magnets, knowing they will be fully utilized and developed for the next stage of their career.

By contrast, Empire Builders hoard and underutilize talent, and as a result the people around them become stagnate or in many cases simply leave the organization.

Fortunately, there are some simple techniques that government leaders can employ to better utilize and ultimately attract talent to help serve their organizational mission.

Look for Talent Everywhere. Talent Magnets are always looking for new talent, and they look far beyond their own organization chart. These Multipliers look outside their organizational boundaries to cast a wide net and find talent in many settings and diverse forms. Government organizations can not only tap into the talent within their teams, but across their communities as well.

Located near the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s office realizes there are companies within their communities that change the world, and they want to tap into that talent. They accomplish this by using community volunteers to test a new 311 application and through design competitions, including a recent “Unleash your Geek” competition to generate new ideas to safely remove graffiti from road signs. Through Liccardo’s competition, his office received 140 responses and identified four finalists to develop prototypes. San Jose is also utilizing retired Silicon Valley executives to assist with strategic direction and initiatives. Khanh Russo, Director of Strategic Partnerships and Performance for Mayor Liccardo’s office believes all government organizations should identify the talent within their community and then “roll out the red carpet, not the red tape” to invite the public to help solve local challenges.

When Lauren Lockwood was serving as Boston’s Chief Digital Officer, her team led the redesign of Boston.gov website to make available information more accessible to the public. Having previously worked in the private sector, Lauren understood that government organizations must use different approaches to compete for talent. Lauren used creative approaches to attract talent to her team by sharing her organization’s mission and progress with the community. When the pilot site was being built it was made available for public review and feedback. She also attended local Drupal meetups to spread the word on the redesign while also scouting talent. As Lauren acknowledged that these approaches “made it easier to hire great people because they could see what was happening.” The messages were clear – join our team and your talents will be utilized to improve services within your own community – Lauren sees this as “a major selling point” for attracting top talent to government.

Find People’s Native Genius. Finding native, and often underutilized, genius begins by being curious about the talent around you. Sean Hume, Assistant Director for the New York State Office of General Services, is an admitted “observer of people”. He is curious to understand what people think and where their interests lie, which helps him understand how they can be best utilized. Sean’s method for finding people’s genius is tied to his strong desire to avoid an assembly line process. When teams performing transactional work function as an assembly line, silos naturally spawn, and Sean says as a result “people do not learn, grow or care”. Regardless of grade level, he wants everyone on his teams to understand the entire process and resulting product, and he accomplishes this by letting people work on all pieces of a process. This approach allows him to identify areas in which individuals excel and enjoy.

Connect People with Opportunities. Once a Talent Magnet has uncovered the native genius of others, he or she looks for opportunities to utilize that capability. When Jim Spencer at the Connecticut Department of Transportation was placed in charge of the new Photolog Unit, he took on the challenge of not only updating their out-of-date Photolog technology but also integrating it with geospatial technologies. Knowing Photolog and database technology was not his area of expertise, he tapped two team members who were ready for a stretch to take lead roles in this initiative. The result of combining improved Photolog images with collected GPS data is an extraordinary resource that is utilized across the Department and by external groups. Reflecting back, this experience changed Jim’s view of leadership. Because he was assigned to lead a large initiative where he did not have full subject matter expertise, he had to “focus on the big picture and see the capabilities of the people around him.” He continues to employ the practice of providing opportunities for his team to move into larger roles.

Government leaders should consider that providing opportunities for employees to work above their grade level could lead to frustration if promotional opportunities are not readily available. In these situations, Susan Filburn Deputy Chief Procurement Office at the New York State Office of General Services has very clear and direct advice to her teams: “Continue to work at the next higher level. If you continue to excel, eventually the payoff will come.” Susan explains to her people that if a Grade 23 is performing the role of a Grade 25, then when he has the opportunity to interview for a Grade 25 position, he can demonstrate that he has already performed at that level, which is a great advantage.

Let go of a Superstar. While at first this may seem counterintuitive the overarching mindset is a key component to being a Talent Magnet. While most managers try to retain their top players, the best leaders know when it’s time to let them go. They recognize when a superstar has outgrown his or her environment. Think about the type of leader you want to work for – the one who tries to limit career advancement to within his or her own group or the one who supports the growth of individuals even if it means letting them go? Susan Filburn has learned that promotional opportunities are often more readily available in other agencies, which results, unfortunately, in individuals leaving her team. But she has always been quick to encourage people to move on and continue to grow. As a result, she has also recognized that when promotional opportunities open on her team, those who have previously left are interested in returning to her group.

Just image how government organizations could attract more top talent if all their leaders took a step towards becoming a Talent Magnet.

Jon Haverly is a Multipliers Master Practitioner with The Wiseman Group focusing on conducting leadership research and helping to develop public sector leaders. He has worked with a variety of government agencies for the past 20 years in the areas of project management, portfolio management and leadership. He has been a PMI certified Project Management Professional since 2001.

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