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The Federal Coach

Even Landon Donovan plays for the team

The other night, I asked my eight-year-old son which U.S. soccer player he wants to be. The answer wasn't surprising: Landon Donovan.

Of course, Donovan's the one in the spotlight, getting the fame and credit, in spite of this weekend's dream-killing defeat.

It got me thinking.

Secretly, we all want to be Landon Donovan. Whether in our personal or professional lives, we want credit for our hard work and the respect of our co-workers, friends and family.

Here's the problem: We can't all be the star. Most of us have to play supporting roles on the field. Some of us are the assistant coach, and someone needs to be the water boy.

That's okay. The often unacknowledged truth is that nobody scores a goal in life without a team effort. This is especially true in government agencies, where you have hundreds of thousands of people contributing to the mission in less visible -- yet still meaningful -- ways.

Recently, I spoke to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who recounted the importance of communicating with employees about the connection between their work and their agency's mission.

"I always think of the old story about a man who was walking along a road and saw two men moving bricks," said Donovan. "'What are you doing?' he asks. One worker says 'I'm moving bricks from this side of the road to the other.' Another says, 'I'm building a cathedral.'"

"We have to find ways to make sure folks at our agency know exactly how their work connects to the broader mission of the agency. They need to know: How is this making our country better? Making our communities stronger?"

Author and leadership expert Daniel Pink made a similar point during our Federal Coach interview in May: "A lot of time, people are not sure how their work contributes to the larger whole and impacts the world. Leaders can provide the context."

Keep in mind most people who join government are there to make a difference. Here are three concrete ways to make sure your agency's employees understand how their work is making an impact:

Formalize it.
Don't just develop performance objectives with a list of tasks and outputs. Incorporate the mission-connection into your employees' performance plans by including a link to the results your agency delivers.

Celebrate success. It's easy to become so wrapped up in the day-to-day rush of activities or the next big challenge that we forget to recognize the victories already secured and how they've contributed to the mission. Don't make that mistake. This is about more than the annual employee awards program and spot awards. It's about personal e-mails or phone calls. It's about making an unscripted appearance at a team meeting to thank everyone for getting closer to the goal. It's about a sincere expression of gratitude.

Make it a habit. 'One and done' will not suffice. As a general rule of thumb, you'll need to communicate your message connecting employees to the mission at least seven times before it begins to stick. One Deputy Secretary I've talked with stated that he uses every opportunity -- one-on-one conversations, agency-wide emails, testimonies -- to make the connection for folks so that they never forget who their serving: the American people.

What do you do to connect your team with the agency's mission? Who do you consider an exceptional leader - one who inspires the workforce to achieve their agency's mission and goals? Please send me your comments and ideas to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Please check back on Wednesday when I interview David McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

By Tom Fox

 |  June 28, 2010; 6:49 AM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Should I tell my employees I want to leave? | Next: Dave McClure: Nine lives of a gov 2.0 leader


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Here's one with particular relevance to federal (and state and local) government. In addition to talking about how things connect to the mission, demonstrate -- through actions -- a commitment to relieving the red tape and other inefficiencies that detract from achieving the mission. Some aspects of the bureaucracy are there for a good reason (e.g., forms that require listing race and ethnicity in order to track inequality). But others are there because someone is avoiding his or her job or because noone ever cared enough to fix it. Regardless of their commitment to your mission, employees will get frustrated when it seems like extraneous factors interfere. Attend to them, change what you can, and try to explain what can't. Otherwise you'll find yourself trying to lead a new set of employees every few years (with a few, perhaps less ambitious hangers on).

Posted by: skeptic421 | June 29, 2010 9:30 PM

OK, you've managed to get one error fixed. Please fix the incorrect use of "their" so that your readers will know that you know the difference.

Posted by: RC13 | June 29, 2010 3:07 PM

PLEASE please please use better copyeditors. Here is an excerpt from your third-to-last paragraph: "to make the connection for folks so that they never forgive who their serving: the American people."

never forgive? I think you intended "never FORGET".

who their serving? It's THEY'RE, not their.

Please, washingtonpost.com, hire copyeditors.

Posted by: RC13 | June 29, 2010 11:44 AM

Good article. Now can we have a column on how Olympic medalist,WPS All-Star Captain, and Washington Freedom forward Abby Wambach is an inspiration and role model for leadership?

Posted by: lsf07 | June 29, 2010 9:43 AM

Great paper, thank you

Posted by: usgarance | June 28, 2010 9:04 AM

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