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Management Matters: Turn Styles

Management Matters: Turn Styles

Dave Mader, Jeff Myers and Steven Kelman

The broad, sometimes little-defined concept of change – especially as it relates to improving government management – was a central theme of the 2008 presidential election. Now our new president is faced with having to make good on the promise of change during one of the most challenging economic environments the nation has seen since the Great Depression.

The question is which management and leader- ship techniques deliver effective, meaningful change – and which do not. If there is a recipe for successful government reform, what are its core ingredients? Is there anything similar about the leaders who have been the most successful – or was it even skill, or just chance? Did those who failed make avoidable mistakes, or did they encounter an obstacle that no one could have overcome?

Although change is inevitably complex, the prescriptive measures are often most effective when they are simple and intuitive.

A recent study, “What It Takes to Change Government,” by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton found similarities in the methods used by public leaders who succeed. The study examined successes and failures of 12 federal agency leaders in the two most recent administrations.

Based on the experience of successful former agency chiefs such as David M. Walker of the Government Accountability Office, Charles Rossotti of the Internal Revenue Service and James Loy of the Coast Guard and compared with less successful ones, 10 key considerations emerged as a roadmap for political appointees and career executives alike.

1. Get a Running Start

Use the time between nomination and confirmation to meet with Congress and key stakeholders. Successful agency heads are twice as likely as less successful ones to use this period to interact with stakeholders and start to develop their strategy.

2. Fewer Goals, Greater Success

The successful leaders generally focus on three, or fewer, goals. Those who failed often had four or more. But it’s not as simple as trimming back. Goals should be outcome-oriented, such as improved results for customers in an observable way. Unsuccessful leaders most typically set tactical, action-based goals, such as: We need a new computer network. We need a new payroll system. We need a new building. Moreover, the goals of successful leaders are intuitive, free of jargon and communicated consistently across audiences.

3. Collaborate With Employees

Resist the knee-jerk temptation to focus on political appointees. Nearly every successful leader emphasized a collaborative style of developing and implementing change, compared with those who did not attempt ambitious change. Also of interest, the successful cases typically had a smaller percentage of political appointees than federal agencies on average.

4. Manage Within

Don’t focus only on the outside world. Successful leaders said they spent nearly half their time on efforts inside the agency, versus with Congress, media and interest groups. They spent internal time building capability, providing vision and guidance, and holding people accountable. Unsuccessful leaders spent just one-quarter of their time internally.

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