Managing with courage

I am writing this column fresh from a fascinating experience teaching a group of Senior Executive Service (SES) managers in an executive education class at Harvard University.

The class discussion involved the case of a newly named station manager at a New York subway station — part of a program the new president of the Transit Authority was championing to break down functional stovepipes and concentrate more on improving the customer experience at the stations.

Prior to the station manager program, a gaggle of functional units all had some control over different parts of the station. For example, one unit controlled token sales, another the turnstiles and another maintenance and repair. The new station manager was given responsibility for the total customer experience at the station.

The problem — and this probably sounds familiar — was that the station manager remained part of one of the stovepipes and was given no new budget or line authority over the other stovepipes to go with this new set of responsibilities.

To add insult to injury, the boss of the station manager featured in the case stated that if the manager wanted something involving other stovepipes, he must first go through a resistant boss, who would take the request through the traditional stovepipe chains of command.

I asked the participants what the station manager should do.

The class began to discuss strategies the station manager might use to get something done, despite the resistance of his boss. The primary strategies involved using the strong backing of top management for this change program and the station manager's own commitment to the customer service mission.

At the end of the discussion, I asked the class, "If you tried first to go through the boss and that didn't work, would you just accept that, or would you try something else?"

More than half the class said they would take on, or go around, the boss if necessary.

That vote took me aback. In the previous six months, I had taught this same case twice in executive education classes consisting of GS-14 and 15 students, rather than SES students. In those classes, hardly a single student voted to take on the boss.

The class concluded with a video about what ended up happening in the case. The station manager did persist, despite the boss' opposition, and he succeeded. When the students in the classes of 14's and 15's heard the station manager say, "So I decided I needed to go around [the boss]," they gasped, although it was clearly in a way that indicated they admired the station manager for what he had done. The SESers applauded.

Is there a lesson here about what personal qualities — despite stereotypes to the contrary — actually are associated with those in government who get promoted? Seems like courage and mission commitment do count after all.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@ harvard.edu.

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