Friday, November 28, 2014

Why leadership in the public sector is harder to find--but more important

Occasionally I post about things that are related to recruitment and assessment, but not focused exclusively on them.  This is one of those times.

I have the following quote from Valve Software's New Employee Handbook (a fascinating document) posted on my office door:

"Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe.
Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing.
So when you’re working on hiring—participating in
an interview loop or innovating in the general area of
recruiting—everything else you could be doing is stupid
and should be ignored!"

The older I get, the more I wonder whether I should cross out "hiring" and write in "leadership".  I just can't bring myself to do it because they're both so darn important.

But this post will be about leadership.  Specifically, leadership in the public (i.e., government) sector.  More specifically, lack of leadership and what to do about it.  I don't pretend that leaders in the private sector are uniformly outstanding, but public sector is what I'm most familiar with.

First things first: in some important ways, leadership in the public sector (PS) is different from the private sector.  Not night-and-day I grant you, but there are some relatively unique boundary conditions that apply, namely:

- Not only are PS leaders bound by normal organizational policies and procedures, they labor under an additional layer of laws and rules, whether federal, state, or local.  Unlike policies and procedures, they cannot be easily changed--in fact in many cases this requires moving heaven and earth.  As one (very important) example, typically there are laws/rules about how you can hire someone.  Many of these laws and rules were created 50+ years ago in reaction to spoils systems and haven't been seriously evaluated since.

- Many PS employees have civil service protections.  This isn't a bad thing, but it means moving employee that are bad fits (either over or out) is difficult.  This greatly inhibits your talent mobility strategy.

- In the PS, leadership is often treated as an afterthought, rather than the linchpin upon which organizational success relies.  The assumption seems to be that the organizational systems and processes are so strong that it almost doesn't matter who's in charge.  This means things like leadership development and training are half-hearted.

These conditions combine with several other factors to result in true leadership being relatively rare in the PS:

- Failure is invisible.  There is very little measurement of leadership success and very little transparency and accountability, absent a media storm.

- There are fewer people in management positions that have the important leadership competencies.  Things like listening ability, strategic planning ability, and emotional intelligence.  Instead they are usually chosen based on technical ability and without the benefit of rigorous assessment results.

- There is a lack of understanding of leadership.  This stems from the lack of attention paid to it as a serious discipline; without operational definitions of leadership, there is no measurement and no accountability.

- An unwillingness to treat leadership seriously.  For whatever reasons--politics, lack of motivation, entrenched cultures--leadership is relegated to second-class status when it comes to analyzing department/agency success.  Focus tends to rest on line-level employees, technology, and unions--and only on top-level leaders when there is a phenomenally bad outcome.

So why is leadership more important in the PS than the private sector?

- Governments regulate many aspects of our lives.  They're not making consumer products.  Leaders in PS organizations have purview over things like public safety, the environment, education, housing, and taxes.  Things you literally touch every day.

- There is less accountability, less transparency.  PS leaders often do not report to a board.  They don't have to produce annual reports that detail their successes and failures.  What they do is often mysterious, poorly defined, and rarely sees the light of day.

- PS leaders work for you.  Elected or not, their salary typically comes from taxpayers.  They ultimately report to the citizens.  This means you should care about what they're doing, and whether they are worthy stewards of your investment.

So what can be done?  Much like the answer to "how do we hire well?", the answers are known.  They're just not practiced very well:

1.  Publicly acknowledge the scope of the problem.  Like frogs in a pot, somehow we find ourselves in a situation where slowly over time the current situation is accepted as normal.  It's time to stop pretending that all PS Managers are leaders.  They're not.  And we must look in the mirror ourselves and acknowledge that we are likely part of the problem.

2.  Acknowledge the urgency to improve.  Stop pretending that leadership is a secondary concern.  Sub-par leadership has a negative impact on our lives every day.  Improving the quality of that leadership is one of the most critical things we can do as a society.

3.  Publicly commit to change, and actually follow through.  Specifically describe what you will change, and when, and provide regular status updates.

4.  Define leadership in measurable terms and behaviors.  Here's just a sample list of what real leaders  do (and not a particularly good one);

= continuously improve operations
= champion and reward innovation
= hold their people accountable for meeting SMART goals
= continually seek feedback and signs of their own success and failure
= create and sustain a culture that attracts high performers and dissuades poor fits
= make hiring and promoting the most qualified people THE most important part of their job

5.  Hire and promote those with leadership competencies, not the best technicians.  While knowledge of the work being performed is important, it is far from the most important competency.

6.  Make the topic of leadership a core activity for every management team.  Eliminate "information sharing" meetings and replace them with discussions on how to be better leaders.

7.  Set clear goals of leaders up front, and hold them accountable.  What does this mean?

= consequences for hiring poor fits
= consequences for poor morale on their team
= consequences for not setting and meeting SMART goals
= recognition for doing all of the above well

8.  Measure leadership success and make the results transparent.  Develop plans to address gaps and follow through.

9.  Instill a culture of boldness and innovation.  Banish fear, often borne of laboring under layers of red tape.  Encourage risk-taking, and learn from mistakes rather than punishing them.

10.  Relentlessly seek out and banish inefficiencies, especially related to the use of time.  Critically evaluate how email and meetings are used; establish rules regarding their use.

11.  Stop pretending that all of this applies only to first-line supervisors.  If anything, they're more important the higher you go in the organizational chart.

12.  When it comes to recruiting, stop focusing on low relative salaries, and capitalize on the enormous benefit of the PS an employer--namely the mission of public service.

13.  View leadership as a competency, not a position.  Leadership behaviors can be found everywhere in an organization--they should be recognized and promoted.

My intent here is not to be a downer, but to emphasize how much more focus needs to be placed on leadership in the public sector.  The current state of affairs is unacceptable.  And for those of us familiar with research and best practices in organizational behavior, it's painful.

So I apologize for the decidedly un-Thanksgivingy nature of this post.  But I am thankful for free speech and open minds.  Thanks for reading.