In the Federal Sector, A Need for Stronger Leaders

The corporate world isn't alone in searching for more effective leaders. The government is also struggling to develop a new breed of leaders who can drive performance

The Obama Administration's call for a stronger focus on performance and results and a culture of increased accountability, innovation, and collaboration has generated a wealth of studies and soul-searching, but only few answers and little consensus on how best to move forward. The Administration itself has focused primarily on stronger performance- and talent-management metrics, appointing the government's first chief performance officer. But some management experts, both in and outside the government, believe the impact of these steps will be minimized without a similar emphasis on more effective leadership.

"While systems and processes can certainly help manage and measure performance, they will never drive it," says Connie Schroyer, who heads Hay Group's federal sector practice. "Creating high-performance cultures, as we know from experience and research in the private sector, starts with leaders."

Although there are certainly many strong leaders in both the Senior Executive Service, the government's top tier of career executives, and the broader civil service, there is general agreement among senior leaders in the government and experts who have studied the issue that more attention needs to be placed on the selection, assessment, and development of leaders. This is especially important if the federal government is to take seriously the charge to be more accountable and innovative in its approach.

Low Score for Leadership

Evidence of that need can be found in The Partnership for Public Service's annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, which is done in association with Hay Group. Although leadership is ranked as the top driver of employee satisfaction, it is among the lowest-rated workplace dimensions of the 10 assessed in the Federal Government Best Places survey.

"There is a lot of potential, but a lot of work needs to be done," says Bob Lavigna, vice-president for research at the Partnership, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on transforming with way government works.

While leadership development is inconsistent within federal ranks, Lavigna says there is increased recognition of its importance. To that end, the Office of Personnel Management last summer announced the creation of a centralized office to support the Senior Executive Service, including coordinating leadership assessment and development. In making the announcement, OPM Director John Berry said the office would help "maximize the potential of these executives within the Federal workforce."

Tom Fox, director of the Partnership's Center for Government Leadership, says that such efforts are especially critical, given the large number of senior leaders who are going to retire in the next few years.

Moving From the Private Sector

But developing stronger leaders within government is not without its hurdles. Traditionally, Fox notes, it has been an "insider's game," and it is more important than ever to eliminate the barriers to hiring leaders from the private sector. Those barriers often include a lengthy, complicated recruiting process, a more rigid culture, systems that can make transition difficult from the private to the public sector, and a lack of effective onboarding (or initial orientation) for those who make the change.

Both Fox and Lavigna say that some agencies are far more advanced than others when it comes to strong leadership. The Defense Dept., Fox says, is "light-years" ahead of other organizations with such programs as its National Defense University, an accredited, graduate-level university for military and civilian leaders from the U.S. and other countries.

Fox also notes that pockets of strong leadership in the federal government are often created by strong leaders themselves. He pointed the Department of Veterans Affairs, which, under Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, a retired Army general, and Deputy Secretary Scott Gould, has combined the best of both the military and private sector, using search firms, developing executive onboarding programs, and incorporating executive coaching.

Other agencies adopting similar innovations, Fox says, include Homeland Security and the Government Accountability Office. Fox and Lavigna both believe that, as in the private sector, leadership development in the federal government must go beyond focusing on just skills and competencies, and address issues such as emotional intelligence and those behaviors that leaders need adopt to be effective. Says Fox: "It's not just about getting results, but about bringing your people along in the process."

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