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The Federal Coach

Ask the FedCoach: The agency 'game of telephone'

Thanks for your comments this week about how federal managers and political appointees can best form a productive working relationship. Please continue sharing your ideas and questions by leaving a comment or emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Fed Coach reader and former political appointee Dan Mintz emailed with additional advice, based on his own experience as the Department of Transportation's CIO during the Bush administration:

• "Respect, reach out, and work with the career staff that report to you at the agency you serve. You will find them dedicated, caring, competent, and tremendously hard-working. You will learn much from them, and it will be only with their support that you have an opportunity to accomplish great things.

• "Remember that political appointees can never speak in a whisper. Most career staff very much want to be as supportive as they can. However, if you are not clear in what you want accomplished, or if you are like me and think out loud, you will unintentionally provide inconsistent and confusing direction, especially until your staff gets used to how you operate.

• "Learn to accept that you will not get everything done, and therefore make the hard decision to prioritize. If you have never been in public service before you will find that unlike the private sector where the goals are fairly simple and the stakeholders relatively consistent in their interests, the opposite is true in government. In the public environment, the goals are less distinct and more complex. Your many bosses on the Hill, in the White House, among the public, and within your own organization often will provide contradictory and ever-changing direction.

• "Have fun. I can honestly say that the last two-plus years have been the most enjoyable and rewarding time I have ever had as a professional. I would not have traded one minute--well maybe one or two--for anything. You will have the opportunity to have great consequence at a place that itself has great consequence for the American public. Enjoy it and pass on that feeling to all you work with."

For more on Mintz's lessons learned, check out his blog Tales from the Technoverse.

Next, here is a question from a federal manager at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

How can I communicate effectively with the front-line staff being supervised by my direct reports? -Federal manager (GS-15), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Communicating indirectly among a large team can be reminiscent of the game of telephone. What begins as a clear, simple message can become garbled and confused by the time it reaches the final set of ears.

To minimize this confusion, I encourage you to regularly communicate with your front-line employees directly. Emails and blogs are effective vehicles for communicating to large groups. When Admiral Thad Allen was the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, he used emails and blogs to reach out to his broader teams. I suggest making these communications as personal and sincere as possible so your employees will read and pay attention to them.

Town hall meetings and "management by walking around" are also effective communications tools to help you reach your employees. Whether it's visiting a team meeting, eating lunch in the cafeteria or grabbing coffee with your folks on a semi-regular basis, the face-to-face contact with employees creates a strong environment of two-way communication.

Given your many managerial responsibilities, it's also important that you rely on your leadership team to communicate to your front-line employees. If there's any mistake leaders make in this regard, it is trusting that what's in their minds is apparent to everyone. Unfortunately, it's not. When asking your team to deliver a message, make sure that you state your expectations clearly, work together to craft a sincere, authentic message and set a time frame for distributing the message. And don't forget to solicit their feedback at your next team meeting to find out how the message resonated with the broader team.

By Tom Fox

 |  February 11, 2011; 9:35 AM ET |  Category:  Ask the Federal Coach Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: 'Warm but tough': Nannerl Keohane on what makes a good leader | Next: 'Managing up' in your agency


Please email us to report offensive comments.

There is no question that the career staff can maintain continuity and be a positive.

The issue I have is when the career leadership is generally lackluster and at the second level and SES level you have stovepipes that are are negatively ingrained.

I work at a department that ranks at the bottom of the human resources survey and it lives up to its reputation.

Generally people are bailing out unless they work in one of the limited good spots. I know we are losing much young and some mid-career talent as such.

The hard choices that need to be made are not made because so much work is subject matter and technically related people are afraid of change.

I also heard a political say they were afraid of the careers.

We need help in making lemonade out of lemons.

Posted by: ksosne | February 14, 2011 8:25 AM

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