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What federal government leaders can learn from the Best Companies for Leadership

If you were like me, on January 25 you sat glued to your television for over an hour watching President Barack Obama deliver his second state of the union (SOTU) address. What is abundantly clear after hearing his address is that it will take more than ideological compromises in Congress to win the future for the world’s largest democracy. Aligning vision and strategy across the behemoth known as federal government bureaucracy is difficult at best. Realigning government structures so that our government can respond efficiently and effectively to rapid political, economic and social changes in an increasingly globalized world, will both figuratively and literally take an act of Congress. Further, it will take strong leadership from President Obama, his Cabinet, agency leadership, supervisors and employees to dramatically improve our government’s capability and capacity to protect our shores, defend the US abroad and best serve the interests of the American people.

Hay Group recently released the results of its 2010 Best Companies for Leadership (BCL) study. The global top 20 represent some of the preeminent names in business (GE, P&G) that managed to foster a culture of leadership despite the same financial crisis faced by the US government. If these companies can foster strong leadership cultures despite the trials and tribulations of the past year, then it begs the question: what lessons from the top 20 BCL should the federal government apply in developing the leadership cadre that will guide the US bid to win the future? Below is what I will call, ‘The Top 10 from the Top 20,’ which represents the top 10 lessons that the federal government can leverage from the Top 20 Best Companies for Leadership.

  1. Expect employees to lead: Contrary to the popular belief espoused by many in large bureaucratic organizations, leadership is not just a function of positional authority. Agencies should expect employers to lead by sharing in the vision, thinking strategically, inspiring colleagues and managing change.
  2. Manage a pool of successors: The succession pool should not be one deep. Agencies should manage a pool of successors for mission-critical roles. Agencies can use 360 assessments in combination with executive development programs with rotational assignments and coaching to identify top performers and future leaders.
  3. Collect and share best practices across subsidiaries: Agencies are independently operated subsidiaries of their parent Cabinet-level department. To improve the culture of leadership within the departments, agencies should develop formal and informal mechanisms to collect and share best practices across the department. This can be done formally by coordinating leadership development across the department within the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer or using informal mechanisms such as a department-wide community of practice.
  4. Cultural diversity to compete in a global economy: For America to win the future, the workforce and leadership of our government agencies must reflect the diversity of its customer base – approximately 308,406,400 US citizens.
  5. Family friendly corporate culture: It’s no secret that family friendly corporate cultures make it more conducive for women to hold leadership roles. In fact, in North America, 90 percent of the top 10 Best Companies for Leadership have a high proportion of women in senior roles. Most human resources policies that govern family-friendly policies, such as flexible schedules, etc are mandated by the Office of Personnel Management. However, agencies do have some discretion in improving family-friendly cultures (teleworking).
  6. Develop leaders who can bring together resources across the organization: Bringing together resources across a government agency, let alone Department, typically calls for a leader with an “S” on his/her chest, a cape, and the ability to leap tall buildings at a single bound. That being said, the collaboration necessary to bring together resources is often a function of trusting relationships that are difficult to form in large, geographically disparate agencies. Agencies can improve in this area by using rotational assignments across divisions so that leaders are able to build the trusting relationships necessary to bring all necessary resources to the table to achieve common goals.
  7. Employees have the opportunity to practice the capabilities to lead: I would argue that leadership development that doesn’t start until a person occupies a formal position of authority is development started too late. Leadership is about a set of behaviors and less about learning hard skills, such as those needed by a technical or project manager. Behavioral change or development is a process and should start from the time an employee on boards with his/her new agency.
  8. Equal pay for equal work: This should not be a stretch given the federal government’s role in advocating equal opportunity. However, it should not be assumed. Leaders and managers should always strive for pay parity especially given that pay parity was found to be a key driver in employee engagement across the federal government according to Hay Group’s Best Places to Work in Government research, although not the most important one.
  9. Help expats deal with the local culture: This finding does not have as direct an application to the federal government. However, if could apply to helping employees and leaders from one agency adjust to the culture indigenous to another agency either within the same Department, a different Department or an independent agency. All government agencies are not created equal. Values, culture, structure, strategy, policies and processes vary from organization to organization. Helping new employees, especially those from another agency, is a key part of successful onboarding.
  10. Local leaders participate in decisions made at HQ: Agency field office leadership and staff often do not feel as though their ideas are given as much weight or even heard at the headquarters level. Encouraging local leader participation in headquarters decisions is imperative to promoting shared ownership for decisions across the agency and successfully managing organizational change.

There is no private commercial enterprise on the planet that has the US government’s cross-industry reach, workforce size, or disparate customer demands. However, the qualities and behaviors of good leaders are universal and the lessons conveyed by the global top 20 BCL are germane, even in our government bureaucracy. Only with a strong culture of leadership will our federal government successfully address the challenges of our present time, and as President Obama declared in his SOTU address, win the future.

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