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The Federal Coach

The next oil spill: Jump out of your agency

On most days, my 40-minute commute up I-395 is pretty pain free. After last week, however, everyone who travels this route probably needed a three-day weekend to recover from the traffic. Accidents on multiple days left folks sitting in two-hour traffic with stop-and-go delays.

Not me. Carrying a new phone equipped with GPS, I missed the gridlock by traveling the side streets. Without these detours, I would have never found a new way to get from home to work. In fact, I prefer the new commute.

Most aspiring government leaders treat their careers like the daily commute. You stay in one familiar agency and follow the same basic route every day.

You develop deep policy expertise, learn how to get things done and become that "go-to" person. That is, until a crisis hits, and you need to get well outside your comfort zone and find a new way to handle matters, and perhaps even call on colleagues from outside your own agency for help.

Take the Gulf Coast oil spill. By my count, at least 10 agencies are playing a role -- the Coast Guard is leading the charge, but the Departments of Energy and Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and others on working on the crisis as well. And I've not even mentioned the coordination with private firms like BP and Haliburton, or the work organizing volunteers from nonprofits such as the Red Cross or the Sierra Club.

Government's big challenges are rarely handled within one agency or by always following the same well-worn path, and now more than ever government leaders must possess two assets: (1) a broad, enterprise-wide perspective, and (2) a set of relationships that can help get things done.

As you consider how to advance as a government leader and become more effective, you should consider gaining broad experience by moving among agencies. Whether you're already a leader on the big issues -- or you aspire to be -- you'll need a first-hand understanding of the role each agency in your sphere plays on any given issue to help bring about consensus. The best way to get this perspective is to actually spend time honing your skills and knowledge by working in different agencies. A bonus is that you'll build personal relationships with a new set of folks who can help you get things done.

Our nation's military services get this right. To reach the top levels of leadership within the Department of Defense (DOD), you must complete "joint-duty" assignments -- rotations into positions with other military services or parts of DOD. As a result, the top commands consist of representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The Intelligence community recently established a similar joint-duty requirement for its top leadership.

If you are working to position yourself as a government leader, my advice is not to be that commuter who gets stuck in traffic without considering the options. You need to move in a different direction. Pursue a detail to another agency. Join a government-wide task force. Take a permanent position in another agency. You'll gain new insights, you'll exchange ideas, improve collaboration, and you -- and leaders like you -- will be well positioned to drive real change in government and handle a challenge that requires multi-agency coordination.

What experience has helped you become a better leader? What else should leaders do to build these skills? I encourage you to share your ideas or experience by leaving comments below or sending an e-mail to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Please check back on Wednesday, when I interview the National Transportation Safety Board Chairman, Deborah Hersman, or receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @thefedcoach.

By Tom Fox

 |  May 28, 2010; 1:10 PM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Talking with your world-wide workforce | Next: When accidents happen, fed workers emerge from anonymity


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This country disdains engineers, the best asset it has. I, as the wife of Wayne D. Pickette-the real pioneer of microprocessor-computer on a chip, and the current pioneer on non internal combustion engine and many adjacent construction, can confirm that this country deeply mistreats its technological genius. And, unfortunately for this state, Louisiana pays the price the second time. First time it was the underestimation of Global Warming, and Catrina, as the price for such neglect. And, yes, government, federal government is to blame for all that.

Posted by: aepelbaum | June 1, 2010 1:51 PM

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