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Dear Metro chief: It's not going to be fun

Olivia Golden
Olivia Golden, an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, led the District of Columbia's Child and Family Services Agency from 2001-2004. She chronicles that experience in her 2009 book Reforming Child Welfare.

Each time I read about the challenges facing Metro's new leadership, I feel a familiar tension in the pit of my stomach. Every article about Metro brings back my own experience--painful but ultimately satisfying--as I led the turnaround of D.C.'s troubled Child and Family Services Agency.

CFSA in the early 2000s, when I became director, and WMATA today, after its string of unsettling accidents, surely rank among the toughest possible settings for public-sector leaders. In such environments, confidence is shot. A history of failure has eroded morale and credibility, intense public scrutiny has promoted a culture of blame rather than learning, resources have never measured up to needs, and reliable information is somewhere between elusive and non-existent.

But I've learned from my own experience and watching others that in even the harshest environment, the right leader with the right skills, team, and political support can make a difference. Performance can go from terrible starting points to promising results.

Here are five lessons I hope Metro's new leaders will heed:

1. Track down and make public as much bad news as you can, right at the beginning. You need to know the bad news as well as the good. A complete diagnosis is crucial to a clear-sighted vision and a strategy for reform.

A baseline review of CFSA at the time I stepped in showed worse performance than anyone had expected. Although at first the news was intimidating, it sharpened our team's focus and ignited creative problem-solving. My counterpart in another state told me that understanding just how bad things were in his agency left him "a different person," one far more ready to try dramatic change.

Grim though it may be as a starting point, the full truth is essential for tracking progress. Far too often, an entering leader's instinct is to touch up the bad news, which only makes it harder to succeed. It is hard enough to clear the real bar, let alone one that is artificially raised.

2. Interrupt the vicious cycle of external political attacks and inside defensiveness.

In three troubled child welfare agencies I studied, outside politics and inside fear typically combined to perpetuate failure. Agency staff responded to a harsh political climates of blame by "hunkering down." They feared decision-making and avoided gathering information that could uncover problems. But those reactions didn't improve performance, they ensured another round of the cycle.

Successful turnaround leaders interrupt the cycle in unexpected ways--being active where others expect them to be passive, and embracing accountability where others expect defensiveness. They draw their erstwhile critics into active problem-solving, for example, or take public responsibility for specific goals even when they don't have to. And they either blend sophisticated political skills with a keen sense of the agency's internal dynamics or pick a close colleague to fill in their blind spots.

3. Build a team that values accountability without finger-pointing.

When problems are systemic, blaming individuals won't solve anything. It takes a mature and seasoned group to resist shifting fault to a colleague when under siege, especially if years of organizational history have engrained the pattern of blaming before you are blamed.

Successful turnaround leaders choose a senior team that can handle this pressure and promote essential principles by modeling them. For example, they reward honesty about problems and regard failure as a chance to learn, not an occasion for fear, anger, or cover-up.

4. Measure constantly.

All the successful turnaround leaders I've consulted were curious about data, eager to understand metrics, and committed to building data-driven organizations. They took measurement personally, closely tracked key numbers, and dug into agency "report cards." Without such a leader, staff easily lose track of performance again, and even a short lapse can mean missing warning signs of dangerous problems.

5. Don't expect the job to be fun.

Too many leaders believe the myth that if they were doing it right, successful leadership will be a joyous experience and lead to high internal morale and outside praise.

Turnarounds don't work that way. The new leader of a troubled agency will be a target for fury built up over years by staff and stakeholders. Change itself will create turmoil. Senior staff unity may crack under the strain, putting the leader in the middle of bitter disputes.

Leaders who take charge in tough times don't have the luxury of behaving badly while it's difficult and hoping to show their better sides when leading becomes easier.

By Olivia Golden

 |  March 12, 2010; 5:55 AM ET |  Category:  Change management Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Ms. Golden -
Your article is valuable, but since Richard Sarles is only the "interim", I suspect that you will need to republish your piece by the end of the year. Certainly revealing bad news earlier rather than later is a good thing, but since most bad news is misreported and/or misinterpreted, such a move can create more problems than it solves. As for external attacks, look to the Washington Post and the WMATA Board itself for examples of grandstanding and misrepresentation. Between them, and the current administration's penchant for firing the professionals (who know when Catoe and Company are NOT QUITE GETTING IT) there will of course be Inside Defensiveness. The management, as distinct from Catoe's minions, have seen how completely dishonest and cowardly this administration is. They have fired people who actually corrected problems and retained people (the previous Chief Safety Officer and the current Deputy General Manager for Operations - previously RAIL AGM) who created problems, some fatal. So building a team that values accountability without fingerpointing is easy - getting staff to believe in it is now impossible. Yes, measure constantly, but use the proper metrics and methods. And no, the job isn't fun. Not in this town.

Posted by: firebird33p | March 13, 2010 9:18 PM

You suggest: "Track down and make public as much bad news as you can, right at the beginning."


I don't think you know what you are saying.

Take any system, say for instance, our health system.

If we followed your advice with respect to known interactions in this field, people would cease to use the health care system.

If it were say reported that doctors' offices and and hospitals have been made invisible torture chambers with all manner of mistaken medication administered and quasi-molestations occuring, people would simply quit going to get medical care.

If it were reported that routine colonscopies and other medical procedures were being used to humiliate, instead of diagnose; or that phamacology was being used to induce psychotic reactions in patients for god knows what sadistic reason,or that doctors playing god performed additional procedures on women just after childbirth if they decided they should have no more children or that someone else could make better use of their eggs... people would simply quit relying on our health care system.

So I think your suggestion to report all, really does more harm than good, in either transporation or health care or most any public policy area.

Posted by: krptn | March 13, 2010 1:22 PM

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