Wanted: 21st century manager
Do federal managers have the right stuff to do their jobs well in the 21st century? In some cases, yes. But several new reports say they need to work on their people skills.
All five reports in the series are based on a study directed by the National Academy of Public Administration, a nonpartisan organization that makes recommendations on public policy.
The academy found federal managers lacking in many leadership and business skills. Deficiencies can be corrected, the academy concluded, but only if agencies spend the time and money needed to prepare current and next-generation managers.
The study reveals a growing consensus among public- and private-
sector executives and scholars that old competencies are out, or not as important as they once were.
Academy researchers, who held
focus groups and interviewed dozens of experts, concluded that 21st-
century managers cannot simply
be supervisors. They must be leaders who can "make sound judgments in an environment of ambiguity and uncertainty," said the study's director, Frank Cipolla, former director of the academy's Center for Human Resources Management and now a consultant. They must be "resilient enough to roll with the punches."
Some experts familiar with the academy's report questioned the practicality of requiring all federal managers to be leaders. The military services have a longer tradition of developing leaders than civilian agencies, but even military departments have had growing pains in trying to develop effective leadership programs, said Darryl Perkinson, a supervisory training specialist at the Norfolk, Va., Naval Shipyard.
Perkinson said that federal managers are often unable to communicate clear goals to their employees because the federal budget process prevents departments from anticipating how much money they will have to spend on projects from year to year, or even month to month.
If private-sector managers had to deal with the type of budgeting process that exists in the federal government, he said, "they would have the same problems that they've described for our
However, the academy's recommendation that leadership be a qualification for all federal managers did not surprise Patrick Wright, professor of human resources studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The issue has gained importance
in both the private and public sectors, he said, largely because other sources
of managerial control have weakened. Because of information technology, for example, access to information necessary for satisfactory job performance
is now widely available, and managers are no longer the principal conduit for that.
Federal managers also have less
control over employees through rewards and punishments, Wright said, because employees have civil service protections and pay is determined by salary schedules. "You don't have significant rewards you can offer, and you don't have significant punishment available," he said.
To be sure, Wright added, the ability to get others to do their work takes more than rewards and reprimands. Managers can become better leaders given the right opportunities and training. "There is clearly a limit that people have based on their own personality, but anybody can improve from where they are," he said.
Cipolla said federal managers must take on new leadership roles and acquire business skills because the nature of their jobs is changing, a conclusion supported by the academy's study and by other research.
The academy's published reports mention the increasing complexity of the work for which agencies are responsible, its accelerating pace and the ever-expanding use of IT to accomplish it. For incumbent federal managers, those changes have been challenging and frustrating, Cipolla said.
Indeed, according to the academy study, many federal managers are unprepared for being the people-oriented, business-minded leaders that academy researchers say are needed in the 21st century.
Other characteristics attributed to federal managers are noted in the reports, and one is that most current managers are insiders. Of the more than 60,000 supervisory positions filled at the midcareer levels in fiscal 2000, only 13 percent were hires from outside the federal government.
Federal managers are not getting any younger either. Typically, they are middle-aged. If nothing changes, in six years, 76 percent of federal managers will be 55 and older, and 27 percent will be 65 and older. The academy has recommended reforms to ensure that younger managers are prepared to step in when the current group retires.
Although the government has made significant management reforms at higher levels, Cipolla said, it has largely overlooked first-line supervisors. They constitute the majority of managers, totaling about 125,000 of the federal government's 200,000 managers.
Their sheer numbers and critical role in fostering good morale and productivity entitle first-line supervisors to much greater attention and leadership-training opportunities than they have received, Cipolla said.
Among federal IT managers in particular, the increasing emphasis on leadership skills and business savvy, confirmed by the academy study, has caused some anxiety. A decade ago, managers were graded mostly on their IT skills, said Howard Ady, a program manager at BearingPoint Inc., which provides IT consulting services.
In performance reviews, technical expertise was weighted at about 80 percent and management at 20 percent, Ady said. Now, the ratio has flipped, and IT managers are expected to be more businesslike in their thinking.
For some managers, he said, getting away from talking bits and bytes is difficult. But, he added, "increasing attention on management skills, communication skills and leadership skills, and trying to inspire hope and confidence in the workforce, are allowing the technical folks to overcome what may have been a limitation for some of them."
Based on the results of a recent study, the National Academy of Public Administration made the following recommendations for enhancing
federal managers' skills:
All federal managers should be experienced and competent in handling agencies' mission-specific programs. They should also be as experienced and competent, if not more so, in leadership and business skills.
Traditional manager evaluation interviews and performance ratings are no longer sufficient and should be supplemented with surveys of nonsupervisory employees. Such measures — sometimes called climate surveys — provide a useful assessment of managers' leadership from those they oversee.
Every federal agency should establish a continuous program for identifying and training future managers, including first-line supervisors, so that well-prepared new managers are ready to step in when current managers leave. The government should provide and pay for such programs by making them part of every agency's strategic business plan.