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The Federal Coach

Four rookie mistakes for the federal manager to avoid

With the NFL playoffs now underway, the annual firing and hiring of coaches has begun. The Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings were the first teams to make a decision by promoting first-time head coaches to lead their teams.

Picking a rookie can be a risk, but for teams wanting to progress forward, their fresh perspective and ideas are often worth it. Remember Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers' young leader, won a Super Bowl in his second year as a head coach. But for all of Tomlin's success, it's likely he made some rookie mistakes along the way.

With the start of the new year, there are a lot federal leaders who've recently been promoted to be first-time supervisors or managers. Like the new NFL rookie coaches, each of these new managers will likely make their own rookie missteps over time. That's how they'll learn and grow to become great leaders.

There are, however, some common rookie mistakes that can be avoided. First-time supervisors and managers, here are some of those mistakes along with suggested actions:

Mistake No. 1: Assuming your team knows your game plan
As a new leader, you may have a great game plan that is obvious to you. You might have even shared it with a few individuals, or even with your entire team a few times. However, to be successful you must communicate your plan clearly and repeatedly. Rex Ryan didn't defeat Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts by luck. He had a game plan that clearly defined his expectations for each player on the team--and I bet every player on the Jets knew it.

Mistake No. 2: Doing your old job, not your new job

Many first-time NFL coaches get promoted because of the excellent job they did in their previous positions as offensive or defensive coordinators. However, to be successful, they have to remember to help their new team of coaches succeed and improve, not simply do their previous jobs. It's the same for a new federal manager. To help get to know and understand your team, start by reviewing their performance reviews. Then, meet with each person individually to find out their strengths, weaknesses and professional goals. Based on this knowledge, you can set clear expectations, monitor performance, provide feedback, and offer training and support so that your team members can succeed and grow.

Mistake No. 3: Being a micro-managing boss
Given all of the challenges confronting federal agencies, you may be feeling the pressure to immediately provide real-time results. As such, you may be reluctant to delegate tasks and trust in your team's ability and performance. Like in the NFL, sometimes the leader can't be the primary play-caller. To help you empower your team, establish clear expectations for each team member's roles and responsibilities. This will allow them opportunities to excel and to make the brilliant plays for your team.

Mistake No. 4: Not being receptive to new ideas
As a new federal manager, you probably have a million new ideas for your program and team that you want to implement right way. In the rush to make your changes, you may dismiss others' knowledge, experience and ideas--no matter how good. Start by having a weekly team huddle where a different member leads the brainstorm around new ideas. This will help to ensure that your team's innovative ideas get heard, debated, expanded and improved; and as a result, you'll be seen as an open and receptive leader.

This is just a starting point for some of the most common mistakes I've seen from new supervisors or managers. I would be interested in hearing from readers about other pitfalls and problems. More importantly, I would like to hear what you did to overcome those challenges. Please share your ideas by posting your comments online or sending an email to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

And please check back on Wednesday, when I speak with Carol Waller Pope, chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. You can also receive a reminder by following us on Twitter @RPublicService.

Government leaders, nominate your outstanding federal employees for the tenth annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal (Sammies)! Considered the "Oscars of Washington," the Sammies are the most prestigious awards honoring our nation's public servants. Nominations are accepted at servicetoamericamedals.org through January 31, 2011.

By Tom Fox

 |  January 10, 2011; 12:25 PM ET |  Category:  Getting Ahead Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Ask the FedCoach: Solving agency personnel issues | Next: Leading in times of uncertainty: An interview with the FLRA's Carol Waller Pope


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1) Know that "management" is a skill that can be learned through classes, and that "leadership" is a personal quality that should be a part of everything you do. You should be working hard to develop both the knowledge and the attitude to supervise well.

2) Don't shy away from or transfer problem employees. Many people complain about lazy and/or underperforming Feds, and sadly, the stereotype exists for a reason. Assess each of your employees individually and give them every opportunity to succeed, but document all of your efforts and the employee's actions (or lack thereof) so that if the time comes to let them go, you will have sufficient grounds to do so.

3) You have to both stand up FOR your employees to your management. But you must also stand up TO them when they try to go too far. Some Feds are not used to having a supervisor say "No". Really. You may be the first, so get used to saying it.

4) You must care about doing a good job as a manager. If you do, then you will succeed. If this is just the first step on a long management ladder for you and the people are irrelevant, then might I suggest leaving Federal service and starting your own company where you're already the CEO? :)

5) Take time for yourself. When you're not at work, enjoy your life. Take your sick time when you need it. When your shift is over, go home. Put down that Blackberry they gave you unless it's an emergency. And tell your employees to do the same. Very few things can't wait until tomorrow; don't be a martyr to the job. That's personal time that you're never going to be repaid for.

Posted by: J2B_CPTR | January 18, 2011 9:41 AM

This is a very perceptive article. Any manager should read this.

Posted by: peterroach | January 17, 2011 4:32 PM

Mistakes to avoid:

1) Coming in before 930 pm w/o a big bag of McD's and allowing your weight to dip below 250 lbs

2) Returning emails or phone calls within a week or acknowledging contractors' attempts to drive a solution.

3) Displaying the courage to speak up when a process with broken and calling out those that allow it to remain that way

4) Displaying a semblance of literacy or a hint of followthrough

Take care to avoid making these mistakes and you may have a chance at fitting in with the other obese sloths in the Federal workforce

Posted by: jackson641 | January 17, 2011 1:55 PM

1) Be careful not to respond to calls and emails in too proactive a fashion and disrupt the culture of slothful, non-productive behavior that will encounter.

2) Don't make any decisions which will disrupt the culture of indecision and be useless in protecting your jobs through apathy.

3) Ensure to arrive late with a huge bag of McD's, complain about the commute, and never let your weight go below 200 if you are woman; 250 if you are a man.

4) Never come in on time if there is more than a 1/2 inch of snow and if the snow gets to one inch or more leave by noon to ensure your safety. Never work if any streets within 5 miles of your home have snow; ensure you play up their danger in all meetings and emails

these basic tenets will ensure you fit in with the rest of our Federal forces

Posted by: jackson641 | January 17, 2011 11:13 AM

They do not know anything different that the culture they grew up in. So, nothing
changes......status quo, waist taxpayer money, everyboby snickers and goes home at the end of the day.

Posted by: gone2dabeachgmailcom | January 17, 2011 3:54 AM

I must say that one of the first things I had to do when I first advanced many years ago into the ranks of Federal management was to unlearn a precept repeatedly dinned into the the collective ears of the Federal bureaucracy, i.e., to treat everyone "the same." There were few if any mentors back then to help a "newbie" learn the management ropes, and one was normally tossed into new management jobs by the tried and untrue "sink or swim" methodology. But I quickly learned by trial and error (mostly the latter) that treating everyone "the same" was the road to disaster. One of the key functions of a manager is that of motivating the workforce, but each person has his or her own motivational "buttons." To succeed, a manager must know how to identify and "push" said "buttons," which means using a nuanced customized motivational approach geared to the needs of each subordinate. The real maxim to learn and apply is to treat everyone "fairly." That is by far a more effective approach, and can and must be done in the context of using the customized motivational approach. It brought me hard-won success, and one that I sought to inculcate in management neophytes whom I came to mentor in later years. Most came to understand the wisdom of that approach.

Posted by: msgrowan | January 16, 2011 1:49 PM

Actually, you're wrong. Rex Ryan beating Payton Manning had everything to do with a great kickoff return with less than 1 minute to play.

What does this mean for a manager? It means that sometimes despite your best plan, you may not have the people to pull it off, and if your plan requires everything goes your way, you'll probably fail.

It's like the manager who is given a $100 budget and doesn't allow a 15-20% contingency. He will fail, and then blame fate instead of looking in the mirror.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | January 15, 2011 11:02 AM

It would be nice for a change to have a boss that had working knowledge of his employees jobs. That is not the case, all agency heads are looking for is someone to have good management skills which is okay, however how can a person manage me when they do not have knowledge of my job and give me performance ratings when I have to tell the manager what I am doing. The Federal government missed opportunities by not promoting from the rank and file employees that has the knowledges, skills and years of experience to do a much better job than these "good management skills" people.

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Posted by: zhengee01 | January 14, 2011 10:48 PM

To most federal managers this is all old news. Most federal managers go to endless classes on management where they get these cutsy things to do or not to do. They go to the same management schools as industry. As a former federal manager I went to those schools. I remember one AMA school in NYC where we were paired up with other managers and I was paired with a VP from Fiat who knew diddly. I ended up pulling draging and helping him through the course. This is a common thing for federal managers. Everyone including YOU assume federal managers don't know anything. Shame shame on not knowing your subject.

Posted by: bluetiger | January 14, 2011 7:29 PM

While these are good rules, many managers take for granted "the law". It is important that managers understand appropriations law, acquisitions law, the statutes that give their agencies authority and the boundaries of how they are supposed to operate.

Nothing will kill an early manager's carrer like an Anti-Deficiency Act violation, or overstepping boundaries with contractors.

Posted by: bravo25 | January 13, 2011 8:36 AM

@kenglehardt above:

Many of your comments are brilliant, IMHO. They are much better than the column you are commenting on. Specifically, I would underline your comments:

"Only your boss or your boss’s boss gets to change the game plan. Try to change it and both they and your employees will bust you."

"Your boss, or his boss, is the only “manager” here. Your job is to take their orders and to make your employees carry them out."

AND, especially:

"...new ideas are not your part of your job. They come from the top when they come at all..."

Posted by: bert8 | January 13, 2011 7:47 AM

I'm a little appalled by how many say that "new supervisors" being low-level, would not have authority to change anything.

My boss is a "new supervisor" but an old Air Force veteran. He was moved up and while he cannot change the big picture he is playing havoc with those below him.

He has changed the way regulations are interpreted. He has changed office hours. He has changed the quantity of information sent to higher echelons. He has changed the decision making process in our office. Because of his many years of experience, all these changes are seen as beneficial to those above because they don't know any better.

If all of these changes are part of some new game plan, I wish he would clue in the rest of us.

He has not quit doing his old job, which is now my job. Because he worked in the office before becoming a manager he micromanages. After all, who knows the job better than he?

New ideas? Perish the thought. He was promoted so he must have been doing everything right. Let's keep it that way.

I don't work in a huge office in DC. But our job is extremely critical. Big waves aren't being made but a team of professionals is being weakened by a "new supervisor" who is an old manager. Perhaps 8 people don't count for much but they count a lot to me.

Posted by: arancia12 | January 12, 2011 8:12 PM

"Any attempt to improve things will be sabotaged by your employees because making you look bad is the way they look good to those who are really in charge."

...well, at the very least they buy themselves another 3-6 months of peace. Plus a convenient scapegoat.

Never underestimate the motivating power of success through the failure of others.

Posted by: tokenwhitemale | January 11, 2011 6:52 PM

First-time supervisors and managers would be low-level employees in the federal bureaucracy by definition ... thus they are unlikely to have the scope and authority to address most of the issues you address. Your comments are most relevant to junior SES staff--in that case, I think you make excellent points.

I would be extremely cautious about expecting to learn anything accurate from performance appraisals other than a sense of general ranking amongst staff members. You've read them yourself, Tom, and you know exactly what I mean.

Very cool to read your column. Well done. Sincerely, A Former Low-Level Micromanaging Supervisor of Yours! :)

Posted by: Virginia_Mom | January 11, 2011 1:45 PM

kengelhart: Thanks for the reality check.
A new manager, assuming they came in at lower levels of management, is NOT in any position to make big changes. As you said, the decisions happen about 2 levels up from there. Unilateral changes are liable to encounter a lot of passive/active resistance from below and annoyance from above. The best thing you can do is figure out how things really get done. You'll have about 25% of the workers that are vital and another 25% that are useless. You need to protect the top 25% from politics as much as you can, encourage the middle 50%, and keep the bottom 25% away from sharp objects. Your bosses will likely actively oppose firing them because it is too much work.

Posted by: Island_Boy | January 11, 2011 10:48 AM

A new low for this column: tedious use of sport analogy. Football, no less. Hey, let's win one for the team shall we?
Um, no. Football analogies have been edited out of most publications for 10-15 years.
This is outdated, male-centric and trite.
Wash Post, I mourn for you.

Posted by: FloridaChick | January 11, 2011 9:11 AM

Reviewing the employee file is fine. But, immediately holding performance expectation discussions is not so fine. It is too easy to say something or promise something you have no business saying or promising until you are thoroughly brought up to speed on your agency's performance appraisal system. Performance discussions, as described, where you bring someone to your desk to go over performance, as described above, could easily be considered a formal discussion, and might be an LMR nightmare if mishandled; the supervisor does not set performance standards, he plays his part in the agency plan.

Posted by: kamdog | January 11, 2011 6:24 AM

Create a management-employee (union) loyalty partnership for public service. Businesses, universities, states, counties, cities worldwide are into a phase of creative disassembly. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being shed. Even solid world class University of California Berkeley led by Chancellor Birgeneau is dismissing employees, faculty via “Operational Excellence (OE)”: 1,000 fired. Yet many continue to cling to an old assumption: implied, unwritten management-employee contract.

Management promised work, upward progress for employees fitting in, employees accepted lower wages, performing in prescribed ways, sticking around. Longevity was a sign of good employer-employee relations; turnover was a dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply in the 21 century economy. Businesses, universities, public institutions can no longer guarantee careers, even if they want to. Managements paralyzed themselves with a strategy of “success brings successes” rather than “successes bring failure’ and are now forced to break implied contract with employees – a contract nurtured by management that future can be controlled.

Jettisoned employees are however finding that hard won knowledge, skills, earned while loyal are no longer desired in 21st century employment markets.
What contract can employers, employees make with each other?

The central idea is simple, powerful: job is a shared partnership.
• Employers, employees face financial conditions together; longevity of partnership depends on how well customers, constituencies needs are met.
• Neither management nor employee has future obligation to the other.
• Organizations train people.
• Employees create security they really need – skills, knowledge that creates employability in 21st century economies
• The management-employee loyalty partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor.

Let there be light for employees and employers

Posted by: Transparencynow | January 10, 2011 7:21 PM

I was a federal employee for 19 years and was assigned to a management position after 5 years in a highly technical position. For the remainder of the time I managed highly paid professionals and advised executives on technical matters. Here is my take on the mistakes:

Mistake No. 1: Assuming your team will give your game plan consideration over the one they have become accustomed to

Only your boss or your boss’s boss gets to change the game plan. Try to change it and both they and your employees will bust you.

Mistake No. 2: Doing your new job, not your old job

Your supervisors are doing the best they can to satisfy the career system that insisted that you were the best for the job. Keep doing what you have been doing. Don’t imagine, in particular, that you can make any improvements. Lay low until everyone sees you will not cause any trouble.

Mistake No. 3: Being a managing boss

Your boss, or his boss, is the only “manager” here. Your job is to take their orders and to make your employees carry them out.

Mistake No. 4: Coming up with new ideas

Again, new ideas are not your part of your job. They come from the top when they come at all. Any attempt to improve things will be sabotaged by your employees because making you look bad is the way they look good to those who are really in charge.

Posted by: kengelhart | January 10, 2011 5:27 PM

there are at least two problems with reviewing the previous performance reviews.

First, they were generated by the previous administration. There's nothing to say that a new manager would agree with their contents if they were in their shoes at the time they were written. They may be accurate, they may be inaccurate.

Second, performance reviews establish a certain standard of acceptable performance which may no longer be acceptable with new management. The new management then has the onus of dealing with documented past performance that was deemed acceptable. Future evaluations will not only have to deal with the concept of what is and what is not acceptable but also what is and what is not actually happening, and one major step is to lend credence to previous evaluations by basing current decisions on them. In a LOT of ways it is better to simply wash ones hands of previous performance evaluations and start over from Day 1 with a clean slate.

Posted by: tokenwhitemale | January 10, 2011 5:09 PM

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