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The Federal Coach

Strategic leadership and learning to 'fail forward'

Martha Johnson
Martha Johnson is the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA.) In this role, Johnson oversees an agency of 13,000 people and manages more than 11 percent of the government's total procurement dollars and $24 billion in buildings and other federal assets. She previously served as GSA chief of staff for five years during the Clinton administration, and as an assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Commerce.

How are you leading GSA through sustainability?

The GSA leadership team is committed to thinking about sustainability in a radical new way. Our goal is a zero environmental footprint. We need to be innovative so [we have studied] a company in Georgia that is very progressive on the sustainability front. At GSA, we design a lot of buildings and we design a lot of processes. We dispose of real property and we dispose of personal property. This company [has] changed their marketing, their financials and their product design. It was an example of a complex organization that had regrouped itself and re-skilled itself for sustainability.

What are you doing to bring about change quickly?

There is a concept I've used across GSA for major and real fast change. The CIO wanted to move on things, but in the government, you can never do anything in a direct line. You have so many stakeholders. So we decided doing what we call "slams." It isn't an acronym, we just slam everybody together in a room for a day and say, "How can we in six weeks jump through five major hoops in our IT system to get it done?" And we had our legal people agree and the contracting people agree and the HR people agree on how to support it.

What leadership skills are needed for success?

I think leaders need to be clear when they are working in their organization and when they're working on their organization. That's a strategic leader.

There's a story from the book, E-Myth, about a woman who loves making pies and decides to open a pie shop. Pretty soon people love her pies, and she's working 24-hours a day and getting sick of making pies. Her consultant says, "You're only working in your pie shop. You need to work on your pie shop." In government, this means you need to understand policy as well as program delivery. You have to do both to be strategic.

What communication skills do leaders need?

They have to have broad communications skills. They need to be able to be speakers. They need to be able to stand up and run a meeting. But they also need to be a communicator over all media. And they need to be able to be in a call and response mode, a much more problem-solving sort of conversation. When you're running an organization, you're called upon to be very formal. Then you have to switch gears and start saying, "What question are you really asking? Well I know this about that. Let me steer you this way. Can we take it up a level?"

How do you get your staff to think outside the box?

As a leader, it's very important to have a real clear eye about risk and to be very intentional and transparent about it. I think we need to learn to fail. I have a little saying, fail forward, fail fast and fail fruitfully, because you never learn or innovate if you always do it right. I think leaders have got to set a different value structure to their people, and say, "I will stand by you."

Government leaders, mark your calendars for September 1st! In just four weeks the Partnership for Public Service will be releasing its highly-anticipated 2010 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. An important tool for federal leaders, the rankings are the most comprehensive and authoritative rating and analysis of employee satisfaction and commitment in the federal government. Agency leaders use the BPTW rankings in their recruitment and retention efforts, as well as to provide managers and leaders with a road-map for boosting employee engagement. To learn more, visit bestplacestowork.org.

By Tom Fox

 |  August 3, 2010; 5:15 PM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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