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Leadership Development Within Agencies

How can we develop public service leaders, and what are some constraints that limit an agency’s ability to offer leadership programs? A panel of leaders addressed this and more at the American Society for Public Administration’s (ASPA) 2019 conference.

Bill Valdez, President of the Senior Executives Association (SEA), moderated the panel. The speakers were:

  • Angela Bailey, Chief Human Capital Officer, Homeland Security Department (DHS)
  • Dustin Brown, Deputy Assistant Director for Management, Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  • Angela Evans, Dean, University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School
  • Robert Goldenkoff, Director, Strategic Issues, Government Accountability Office (GAO)

 Valdez described the panel’s origins: Each speaker was interviewed for a study that SEA conducted with the University of Texas LBJ School and Indiana University, with funding from the IBM Center for the Business of Government. The study looked at two questions:

  1. Are there agency-based exemplary leadership development programs?
  2. What are the system-level constraints that inhibit the development of agency-based leadership development programs?

“We’ve done some research interviews that have identified a number of constraints that could be solved with policy or legislation or even just by taking advantage of existing authorities that we have available to us,” Valdez stated.

Brown pointed to the variety between agencies in how much of an agency’s budget is dedicated to its people, versus its grants or contracts.

“I think that often is a good leading indicator of whether they’re a people-focused organization,” Brown said.

Valdez then moved to the lack of a standard model of leadership development within the federal government and asked Evans why this problem persists.

Evans stated that each agency has distinct missions and goals. She also asked what leadership means – does it mean the agency is pushing people to start things or is the agency trying to get people who leave an impression when they leave the room?

“One of the things is [to] just give people opportunities because you can get them to lead projects or you can get them to critique projects,” Evans stated. “It’s just giving people extra tasks and not putting them in a hole; it’s trying to bring as many disciplines together so people will be sensitive to how they behave in integrated groups because that’s what government is all about.”

Award-giving should also be prioritized, Evans said, to acknowledge efforts to lead, carry out operational duties and rescue projects.

However, Goldenkoff brought up the issue he has observed with agencies in terms of justifying leadership development programs that might result in awards given to individuals: the data agencies keep for their programs were incomplete.

“Agencies just don’t have good visibility of the return on investment,” he said. “It’s so important, because how else do you justify a leadership development program, especially to senior leadership or political leadership?”

Agencies must look not only at the impact of a leadership development program, according to Goldenkoff, but also the improvements in productivity and leadership abilities in individuals.

So, is there a desire for leadership development? At DHS there is, Bailey confirmed. The agency is trying to treat everyone as a leader because the department is more operational than policy-based. They have many front-line folks that need to display leadership in extreme situations.

“What we’ve decided to do is create a leadership development framework that’s generic enough that the different cultures within our different components have the ability to tailor it to what makes sense to them,” Bailey said. “A one-size-fits-all just is not going to work for DHS.”

For example, DHS brought in a London-based company to teach leadership through Shakespeare to executives. The process of getting people in the room was interesting, but worth it in the end: Bailey said that all the executives loved it.

“The lesson I’ve learned is that people want to display leadership, they want to have the experience of it and the ability to try out different ways to express it,” Bailey said.

Last year, one of the themes of DHS’ Year of Leadership was inclusive diversity, and Bailey moderated a panel on unconscious bias and how to lead your way through that so that your team is productive.

Situational leadership was important as well so that leaders within the agency were better equipped to apply different leadership styles and know when to pull back. Teaching political savvy was also emphasized. Every month DHS would release articles, host panels and offer coaching and mentoring sessions online and in-person to people spread out around the world.

Evans brought up an issue that she’s heard time and time again – students go into agencies that have no idea how to use them. They’ve been trained to work efficiently, which oftentimes surprises their employers.

“We have to align better how we’re preparing students and how we’re preparing the workforce that’s taking them,” Evans said.

Do you have any suggestions or comments on leadership development within the public sector? Let us know in the comments below.

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