A Toolkit for Managing Risks as You Climb the Government Ladder

Much of the East Coast was impacted last week by Hurricane Florence. Prior to the storm’s landfall, governors of several states declared a state of emergency in an effort to be proactive. People boarded up their homes and evacuated low-lying areas. Residents in affected areas were advised to assemble emergency toolkits containing food, drinking water, flashlights and batteries.

In addition to damaging coastal areas, Hurricane Florence caused significant inland flooding, resulting in billions of dollars in damage many miles away from where the storm made landfall. Surprised property owners in these inland areas without flood insurance were left with substantial uncovered damages.

As a federal leader, risk opens you up to new challenges and increases your opportunity for success. However, it makes you vulnerable. Preparing ahead of a predicted storm is always a good idea to help manage risk. It’s not just the eye of the storm that matters. Substantial damage can also occur in outlying areas. Much like preparing for a hurricane, you can formulate your own course of action to control your reactions and responses in case calamity strikes. Here is a toolkit for managing risks as you climb the government ladder:

The Risk of Physical Harm

It’s disconcerting, but today’s workplaces are rife with health and safety concerns. Do you sit at a desk all day? Numerous studies show that extended sitting can result in metabolic diseases which can put your life at risk. How ergonomic is your workstation? Most executive desks are not ergonomic, putting you at risk for repetitive motion injuries. Do you squint from staring at the glare on your computer screen all day? Extensive screen time can cause eye strain.

As frustration mounts with employees being expected to do more with less all the time, there’s the risk of verbal violence and bullying in the workplace. Additionally, federal jobs are not as secure as they once were due to increased accountability. This can lead to more stress, which can result in workplace violence. Federal leaders are likely to deal with a disgruntled employee at some point in their career. If you are a leader responsible for someone’s discontent, you could be the target of workplace violence.

As a leader, you’re in a unique position. You have some control over workplace health and safety. You can mitigate the risk of physical harm by analyzing workplace environmental risks, addressing verbal violence and bullying, and working to reduce employee stress. Find a trusted advisor or human resources professional to work with to mitigate these risks for you and your employees. Make sure you and your employees have access to employee assistance plans to help reduce personal and work stress. Always have a plan for employee health and safety (including your own), and plan training for both you and your employees on what to do in an active-shooter situation. In addition to federal resources, many communities now have local resources available to assist with active-threat emergency action planning. Let your employees know that you have a plan and practice it with them.

The Risk of Financial Harm

Although federal managers are usually protected from lawsuits as long as they are performing their official duties, the odds of being accused of wrongdoing during your federal career are not in your favor. A disgruntled employee or public citizen can still sue you. While it’s uncommon for federal supervisors to be found personally liable, they can be under certain circumstances.

To mitigate financial harm, invest in professional liability coverage. Additionally, ensure that you carry the maximum amount of personal liability insurance and that you supplement it with umbrella coverage. Seek a professional insurance consultant to assist you with adequate insurance coverage so you can have peace of mind.

The Risk of Reputation Loss

According to Benjamin Franklin, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

One of the biggest risks to your reputation today is social media. While social media can be a great way to interact with others, it can also be a liability. You can single-handedly damage your own reputation and that of your employer with one social media post. Additionally, a disgruntled employee can trash your reputation with one post. Social media can destroy reputations in a heartbeat and can even lead to loss of your career.

To mitigate the risk inherent in social media, limit your personal utilization to professional networking sites. Keep your personal life, thoughts and opinions off-line. Actively monitor your online social interactions and manage them appropriately. Don’t post anything negative, and watch for derogatory posts or comments from others. Monitor and be prepared to delete posts that could have a disparaging impact on your reputation. Protect your personal brand and that of your employer by having a crisis management plan ready to remove inappropriate posts and respond appropriately.

The Risk of Failure

We are all familiar with “successful failures” in life. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Abraham Lincoln are all examples. Failure is part of the experiment of life. As a government leader, you must be prepared to take calculated risks to succeed. Failure is unavoidable at some point in your career. There’s wisdom to be gained from failure. Failure encourages innovation and provides new opportunities.

Though failure can be inevitable even with proper planning, your response to it can be formulated ahead of time. Following failure, you will feel bad. Adopt a positive attitude anyway. Admit the mistakes you made. Stop the bleeding. Just like after a hurricane, you’ll need to tally the damage and provide some damage control. Analyze what went wrong. You may be frustrated, but you cannot be paralyzed by the fear of repeated failure. You’ve got to get up and keep going. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “You cannot fail unless you quit.”

The Risk of Accountability

The higher up the government ladder you climb, the more you are accountable for your actions and the actions of those who follow you. In today’s current environment just one mistake can cost you everything. You are responsible for your own actions as well as the actions of your employees. Political leaders are often looking for someone to blame for a failure in federal government. In today’s contentious political environment, it can be “off with your head!” if you are the one in charge.

To mitigate the risk of accountability and its impact, stay actively engaged with your employees. Make sure you know what is going on out on the floor. President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk. It read “The Buck Stops Here.” Don’t place blame on others when something goes wrong. Making yourself out to be the victim will backfire. Instead, own the failure. Take personal responsibility. Analyze what went wrong and use it as an opportunity for future improvement.

Final Thoughts

To climb up the government leadership ladder, you must step outside of your comfort zone and be willing to expose yourself to new risks. These risks include the possibility of physical harm, financial harm, reputation loss, failure and accountability. However, like assembling a toolkit in preparation for a major hurricane, you can plan ahead of time to help manage these risks and reduce their impact as you climb the government ladder.

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Sherrie P. Mitchell is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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