What Does It Take to Lead a State Agency?

By Associate Consultant Tess Mullen, MPA ‘13

This week, Fels Research & Consulting is releasing its latest Promising Practices report: “What It Takes to Lead State Agencies: Promising Practices for State Cabinet Secretaries.” Based on in-depth interviews with more than 24 current and former cabinet secretaries nationwide, this new report explores seven core competencies that can help leaders manage their agencies and advance their governors’ agendas.

Having spent the last several months writing this report, I am truly excited to share it with the public. While our report focuses specifically on state cabinet secretaries, I believe its actionable recommendations and keen insights can help leaders at all levels of government affect change.

As I interviewed state cabinet secretaries and former chiefs of staff for this report, I was struck by the multifaceted nature of state cabinet secretaries’ jobs. As two well-known Pennsylvania public servants Jim Seif and John Estey wrote in the report’s foreword, cabinet secretaries are advisors, administrators, managers, innovators, and politicians. As the politically appointed leaders of state agencies, on any given day cabinet secretaries can find themselves developing a new policy proposal, rallying support for a bill in the legislature, reviewing budgets, managing staff and more. Given the hectic nature of these positions, many cabinet secretaries said that one of the keys to success was formulating a clear vision for what they wanted to accomplish during their tenures. The process of vision casting was never a solitary activity however. Indeed, close coordination with the governor’s office, and with one’s own staff, was often necessary to formulate a vision that would stick.

Along with formulating a vision, another core competency that we explored in our report was managing and motivating agency staff. While cabinet secretaries are usually political appointees, many, if not most, of the employees they oversee are career staff. Many of these career staff worked at the agency before the cabinet secretary started and will continue to work there after he or she leaves. To improve an agency’s internal operations, therefore, many cabinet secretaries said that it was critically important to form good relationships with agency staff early on. To do this, some secretaries took time to personally introduce themselves to staff when they started. Others held town halls with agency employees or created a system where employees could send them anonymous emails with feedback and ideas. Regardless of the techniques they used, many secretaries said that gaining their staff’s trust early on was the key to enacting changes later.

One of this report’s greatest strengths is that it is filled with first-hand narratives from the cabinet secretaries themselves about the challenges they faced and how they addressed them. As a college English major, I learned the value of a good story at an early age and our report is full of them. Regardless of your profession or position, I believe that everyone can learn something from reading about the experiences of these highly dedicated, highly respected professionals. I am grateful to each of them for sharing their stories and their wisdom with me and for allowing me to share it with all of you.

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