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On My Watch, Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience – Part One with Martha Johnson

There is such a good story surrounding GSA, it’s a story of innovation and stewardship for the government. I feel that story needs to be front and center for people. I feel even though I am no longer in a leadership position at GSA, it is still a good thing to do, to carry that message, not to be diminished by a scandal that had proportionally a very different kind of meaning but had huge reach in the press. – Martha Johnson.

It would be easy to remember former GSA Administrator Martha Johnson from the training conference scandal in Las Vegas, Nevada last year. The scandal was front page news and fodder for late night comedians that resulted in her resignation in April 2012.

But despite a very public ouster, Johnson has remained passionate about GSA and government in general. She is a pioneer in innovation, creative and effective management and organizational culture change. She has put those lessons together in her new book, On My Watch, Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience. On My Watch is not a Washington tell-all or a commentary on ills of government, instead the book focuses on real leadership lessons.

All week long the DorobekINSIDER will feature excerpts from our interview with Johnson. But we start off our weeklong series, talking about why writing this book was so important.

“I was so privileged to be able to be at the top of GSA for several years. In fact I spent 7 years of my career there. I learned so much. It was such an extraordinary opportunity for me and I feel the leadership lessons that I gained, I shouldn’t put in my diary and forget about it. The way you learn about leadership is by watching others, by trying, by testing, by reading, so in a small way this is a gesture to share some of the lessons I’ve learned,” said Johnson.

Is leadership in government different than in other arenas?

“I think the biggest difference is the cultural difference. In government you have this culture of oversight and inspection. You also have a culture that is dictated by the civil service norms which is about a culture of rights. People are in their positions and are covered by a certain amount of legislation to protect their rights. When that bumps into what is the business culture of performance, which is also important to the government, you’ve got a mash-up there that a leader has to wade through. I think it takes some pretty strong leadership to reconcile those,” said Johnson.

Post scandal hearings – one of the powerful lines you spoke was, “I will mourn the loss of this job for the rest of my life.” Was that true?

“I was speaking truthfully then, and I still feel that way now. It was such an extraordinary opportunity, you can count the number of people on your hands and toes who get to head such an impactful organization. There was so much we could do strategically to impact the government. The environment, taxpayer spending, innovation – we could impact all those things. To have that opportunity for a couple of years and then to lose it was devastating. There was such a sadness to me that I had that opportunity and it slipped through my fingers. But I did have it for a time, so I wrote the book with the spirit of sharing what I had learned from my time there,” said Johnson.

Most people outside of government don’t know what GSA does or event that it exists. How do you deal?

“I used to give speeches and I talked about I’m how I am from GSA, and it is not the Girl Scouts of America or the Gay Straight Alliance – it is the General Services Administration, because GSA is kind of in the background. It is the rare organization that touches all of government and I don’t just mean the executive branch, our largest client in the Public Building Service was the Judiciary. We also served legislators, helping them find office space. We serve State and Local and tribal organizations. So, there is huge impact across government and yet it is all behind the scenes, no question,” said Johnson.

Some people feel that you got a raw deal? You were the scapegoat for a scandal that happened when you had just taken office. How do you respond to that?

“I am not sure I exhibit anger in the way of punching pillows and so on. I did find afterwards that there were three different categories of people who responded:

  • Really supportive network that sent me banana bread and flowers and wine.
  • Another was a group of old-time Washington people who said get a grip, you will be fine. Get a dog and buck up.
  • The third group was really angry. There were people who were really disoriented by it and unhappy about it. They would call me up and tell me about how upset they were. In some ways I was able to displace my own anger because they were shouldering it for me.

More directly I was shocked and stunned and I felt as if things had gone haywire. I also felt that politics were stepping in and there is just no way around that at times and we can see how that slams into performance. I was pretty devastated by it. I can’t say I was angry by it, more in a state of numbness,” said Johnson.

Why did you want this job? You describe in the book how GSA was run before you arrived, you write, “What I observed was as follows. A quarter of the executive positions were empty, strategy was non-existent, major customers viewed their partnership with GSA as askance, labor relations were acrimonious and the IT infrastructure was inadequate. The schedules and other contract vehicles were burdensome. The Federal Acquisition Institute had atrophied. The leasing portfolio was disproportionately large and nearly two years had lapsed without a confirmed administrator.” Why would you want to work there?

“I wanted the job because I had been at GSA before. I had been there in the 90s when we were in a very special time of improvement, change and innovation. It was a time of embracing the internet – back in the dark ages – and I saw what the organization was capable of then. In coming back and seeing so much had atrophied and without leadership things had been spinning in doom loops, I knew what it could be, so I wasn’t so much as daunted by the problems as I was excited about the opportunity to get back in the saddle and get it together. And the organization seemed to be very ready to do that,” said Johnson.

GSA was ready to move forward?

“GSA has always struggled because it is about a dozen or so business lines. It is almost like a big holding company, so you have a lot of different things going on. To have that be coherent requires some serious vision and strategy from that central office. For a couple of years that position was interim so the acting administrators couldn’t work positions to say “Let’s pull this together, and go in this direction.”

One of your big positions was to have the government have zero carbon footprint. Why was that important?

  • It was a pull metric. It was a unifying metric that pulled all of us in the same direction. It was important to us in that unifying way. At the time where we were receiving some resources from the Recovery Act where we could upgrade buildings and make them more efficient and productive. I have always found that if everyone can be working in the same way – and green or the zero environmental footprint notion – had us all working together to avoid waste, organizations run better.
  • The other angle is that finding ways to be more efficient requires tremendous innovation. So it is both innovation and no waste and those two things to me are as unifying and captivating as anything.

“Having that really audacious goal of taking us to zero, which of course arguably unreachable, had everybody going in the same direction with the same vision, that can really improve processes and innovation,” said Johnson.

GSA held competitions for new building designs. Why?

“We were coming to GSA when at that moment the whole notion of how we work had to change because the infrastructure of keeping all these buildings, paying all this rent, heating all these buildings, cooling them, servicing them, wiring them, was becoming a tremendous burden for the government. I had been in the business world during the time between the Clinton and Obama Administrations. It was during that time that businesses were really becoming more flexible and virtual and global. Those concepts were ones I brought to GSA. Right along with Bob Peck who was the Commissioner of the Public Building Service, we recognized that we needed to help the government become much more flexible and become more virtual. We needed to adopt these new technologies,” said Johnson.

Much more mobile? Not everyone has a desk at GSA.

“We were pretty audacious on that front, we were both making a point and learning by putting ourselves into a huge lab – it was an experiment of how to conduct our business in a more flexible, mobile and virtual way. You know mobility is a huge issue in Washington. I commute from Annapolis and it is devastating how much time we lose sitting on the roads. We need to take some of that out of our lives by providing some options to federal workers,” said Johnson.

Can you innovate and telework? The CEO of Yahoo says no.

“Proximity is important. You have to find a way that people can know each other, no matter what that means. I worked at CSC with 90,000 people around the world. There were projects and team members that never met each other. There was a lot of value in being able to hook them up and work together and we did work on ways that people could become friendlier even if it was only virtual. It is a challenge and we need to learn how to handle it.

  • One of the reasons we put telework on the table so vigorously is that we need to push that question into the consciousness of government, so that they had it in their tool kit. So we had to be pretty dramatic to get that kind of attention to telework.
  • It is interesting to think of telework and innovation and think which one helps the other. I would imagine that the sheer process of being in a telework environment where you’re working in different places, that you are coming in and are not stuck in your habits, you probably end up with a different mindset about innovation. That is a gross generalization. But I do think that stirring things up does stir things up. So if you stir things up in how you work, my hope is that you are able to stir things up in what you are doing. Then innovation can emerge more easily.

More with Martha Johnson:

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Charles A. Ray

An excellent example of the importance of leadership in government, something that is too often ignored by many who think all they need is ‘policy’ expertise.

Alan L. Greenberg

I haven’t read the book yet but I’m sure it’s a good read, especially for ex-GSA junkies like me. One comment on the interview. Ms. Johnson was far too polite and politically correct in explaining her taking the fall for the GSA so-called scandal. In some of my other posts I didn’t mince words with my own opinion. This was not a scandal, but more a case of some bad business decisions which became a convenient subject for political grandstanding in an election year. She was a convenient scapegoat to create the illusion that the White House was acting quickly. She knew the risks of a political appointment and her staged resignation was her gesture to the administration. The real scandal is yet to come. GSA spent more money “punishing the innocent” than the questionable costs on the audit report that started it all.

For more pithy commentary check out the links to my blogs and YouTube extravaganzas on my website.