Wisdom From a Retired Fed: A Practical Guide to Management

Management is (to paraphrase Casey Stengal) :”75% art and the other half is science” . To individuals entering the profession, managing can appear to be an endless minefield with potential disasters lurking at each step. Yet veteran managers often appear to subordinates as magicians able to generate optimum performance effortlessly. Over the next several weeks I will propose a series of management principles I have deduced/determined over a lifetime of observations, which form a basic practical approach to managing people, programs and organizations. These principals helped guide my career and hopefully can assist you.

At one point in my career I worked for an individual who was, in my judgment, sadly lacking in common sense. I would on occasion tell him that my disagreements with him were based on the fact that I represented the voice of reason. He often responded by saying, “ You are not the voice of reason but rather you are the voice of John Ressler’s opinion”. I provide this antidote merely to illustrate that while the principles I will be sharing are based on observations gained over a lifetime of managing complex organizations, they are still the voice of “John Ressler’s opinion”. Furthermore, I believe you readers have a right to know my background as you assess whether or not to accept “John Ressler’s opinion”. I have over 30 years experience managing people and programs, 14 of those years as an executive with a large Federal agency. At the pinnacle of my career I was responsible for over 50,000 employees and an operating budget of several hundred million dollars a year. After retiring from Federal service, I spent four years with a large Washington D.C. based corporation and nearly two years as an independent consultant to two foreign governments. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion and/or policies of the organizations that previously employed me.

One of the more interesting observations I’ve made as I moved thru various organizations is that they all operate in a very similar manner. While it is often stated that private industry is far different then “government” because of the profit motive, the vast majority of employees and managers in corporate America face the same issues and utilize the same tools as that of their “government” counter parts. Government managers deal with limited budgets, increasing client expectations, pressure to improve productivity and quality, and employee recruitment/retention issues every bit as difficult as those faced by private industry. Government managers are as competent and committed as those I have met in private industry. Lastly, over the past 15 years “downsizing” in most federal agencies coupled with monumental changes in the retirement system has significantly reduced if not eliminated the lifetime employment factor which was once the hallmark of government employees. Therefore the principles we will discuss over the next several weeks are just as applicable to private industry, as they are to government positions.

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