5 keys to better leadership

Experts offer ways to move beyond mere management to be a positive force within your organization

People often talk about management and leadership as if they were interchangeable, at least until they find themselves in a pinch. When an organization confronts new challenges -- when a new structure or new culture is required -- the difference between the terms always becomes clear. A good manager can keep a program or organization on track, but a leader is necessary to change directions. A manager can execute, but a leader must provide the vision.

That distinction was made repeatedly during discussions about leadership at the Government CIO Summit, a conference held earlier this month in Tucson, Ariz. The conference was sponsored by FCW Media Group, the parent company of Federal Computer Week.

William Torbert, a professor at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, has identified seven leadership types, from the opportunists, who are only it for themselves, to the alchemists, who can guide long-term transformation. He characterizes the styles in numerous terms, but the overarching issue is how well each deals with change.

The most successful leaders, such as strategists and alchemists, are distinguished by their ability to alter their way of thinking as situations require rather than rely on habitual mind-sets. "They realize they need to change their whole outlook about what they are doing," Torbert said.

Robert McFarland, chief information officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, makes the point that an organization needs both vision and execution. He spoke about the role of leaders as change agents by saying you need both leaders and managers to drive change. "If you are missing one or the other, forget about tackling transformation," he said.

Here is a roundup of observations and advice from other speakers and conference attendees about how to manage in a changing environment and how to bring about necessary changes.

Stop thinking like a baby boomer.

One of the most immediate challenges facing most leaders is the slow but significant shift occurring in the workforce. The "graying" of the workforce is only half the problem. The other half is apparent when you see who is showing up to take their jobs.

True, the incoming generation, born in the 1960s and 1970s, are often incredibly savvy about technology, understanding almost intuitively how to put it to good use. Despite sometimes being labeled slackers, they can be surprisingly ambitious -- hoping, even impatient, to make a big splash as soon as they walk in the door.

In other words, they are not especially interested in following the baby boomers through the labyrinthine seniority system, said Bruce Tulgan, a management consultant and founder of RainmakerThinking. They have no interest in paying their dues for 10 or 15 years.

"'Don't tell me what you have for me in 10 years,' they say. 'Tell me what you have for me tomorrow,'" Tulgan said.

Many people in the so-called Generations X and Y are also looking for more balance in their lives. They want flex-time or part-time work or perhaps telecommuting. "They say, 'I don't want to work on Thursdays,'" Tulgan said.

Organizations must learn to adapt, because they need the skills and insights young workers bring to the job, he said. Unlike the current generation of leaders, they understand how to navigate the information tidal wave every organization faces.

They may not have all the wisdom and experience of their managers, "but we can't write them off," Tulgan said. "They are on to something."

"We don't have any choice," said Ken Heitkamp, the Air Force's assistant CIO for life cycle management. "We have to be sensitive to the differences in the generations."

Although the cultural difference also exists in the military, "it's not as noticeable," Heitkamp said. But you do see it when it comes to technology. "There is clearly a difference in the way their minds are able to react and adapt," and DOD organizations need to exploit that, he said.

Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

As the workforce changes, so must the management styles of today's leaders. Baby boomers typically favor a hands-off management approach, in which they leave employees to muddle through until something goes wrong and corrective action is necessary, Tulgan said. That strategy could be called management by special occasion.

He said such an attitude is a byproduct of the hierarchical organization created by the seniority system, in which junior staffers are left to sink or swim. That might have worked in the past, but not anymore, Tulgan said.

The current generation requires high-maintenance management, in which managers tailor their style to the needs and strengths of individual employees. "It's the only way to start developing bench strength for leadership," Tulgan said.

The Marines offer a good example "They push hands-on leadership all the way down to the lowest level," he said.

The military has learned that in developing future leaders, it is important to teach people how to think, not just how to act, said Col. Curt Carver, associate dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

"The situations they face will be different than the situations we faced," Carver said. "We need agile thinkers. We can't train them to all think the same way."

On the battlefield, for example, "they are running into situations where there is no solution, so they are generating solutions on the fly," Carver said. "The situations play out so different from what we thought they would encounter."

Keep the big stick in check.

One of the paradoxes of leadership is that the strongest leaders wield power sparingly. It's not just that they speak softly and carry a big stick -- they avoid using the stick unless necessary.

This is especially important when they are trying to bring about lasting change in an organization's structure or culture, Torbert said. "The power to transform organizations is not a unilateral power," he said. "You need to have it available, but you have to be careful how you use it."

One of the downsides of unilateral power is that its threat tends to quell the independence and creativity of lower-level staff. Effective leaders exercise the power of mutual inquiry, drawing on the ideas and opinions of those around them. "But the more unilateral power you have, the harder it is to make inquiry work," Torbert said.

This principle holds true even in the military, Heitkamp said. Unilateral action is essential when it comes to command and control decisions, but strategic decisions are often made in a more collaborative fashion, because leaders have the time to listen and adapt, he said.

Honest inquiry means being open to criticism. Leaders "need to be willing to accept that your answer is not necessarily the right answer," Heitkamp said. "It's easy once you do it. It's easy once you have the right team."

Torbert agreed. Part of being a leader is "recognizing that you yourself are not perfect and you are vulnerable," he said. That vulnerability is powerful because it makes other people more comfortable about expressing their ideas and asking questions.

Some managers never accept that. They are often people who have risen through the ranks because of their expertise in important areas. They may get things done efficiently because they are experts, but they never trust anyone else to do the work, Torbert said.

They are also unwilling to take advice from others, unless those people are experts, too. Such leaders might add value, but they are "the most hated kind of manager," he said.

Don't rush into big change.

Leaders are often brought into an organization to bring about big change. Even if that is not the case, they often find they want to initiate change anyway. In both cases, though, they must resist the urge, if only for a while.

"Never rush into a transformation effort," McFarland said. "Assess and understand your current environment. If you don't know where you are starting from, how can you build a path to where you want to go?"

Leaders sometimes get carried away by their vision and lose sight of where they are. He points out that Mapquest always works from a starting point.

Stephen Fletcher, Utah's CIO, agreed. "The biggest mistake every CIO makes within [the] first month is they will make a declaration on direction that has no bearing on the current environment," he said.

Fletcher, who previously served as CIO at the U.S. Education Department, said he knew he needed to make some changes in how Utah provides technology services to its agencies. But he also knew that he needed to get a better idea of how those agencies worked.

He spent several months learning their operations and assessing their requirements before he proposed any changes. His proposal -- creating a central fee-for-service technology organization -- meant big changes. But before putting his idea into action, he also took the time to get support from legislators, who gave him control over information technology budget and staff at all agencies.

McFarland, who was confirmed as the VA's CIO almost two years ago, is now attempting his own large-scale reorganization. He warns other CIOs who are contemplating similar efforts to think twice before they start. The first thing to consider is whether they really have the stomach for it.

"Being a change agent is not for the faint of heart," McFarland said. Don't undertake a transformation if you are not fully committed, because "it's not fair to your employees or your organization."

For starters, would-be change agents must assess their willingness to take risks and make mistakes, McFarland said.

They also have to gauge their tolerance for compromise. "If you want to be a change agent, you have to know when to compromise," he said. "It is important [that] you change on a continuum, as a matter of degrees."

Watch out for the slow roll.

Every organization has them: Those employees who do not openly oppose change -- who even pay lip service to it -- but who do everything in their power to slow it to a crawl.

They never take a stand "but keep setting up one roadblock after another," McFarland said. "I need to recognize the slow roll as soon as it starts and stop it in its tracks."

The slow roll can be discouraging, but it should not be unexpected. "Realistically, there's no way I can motivate everyone, but that's OK as long as I motivate people who can make the difference," McFarland said.

Fletcher said his strategy is to identify "zealots," people on the management team who understand the benefits of the proposed changes. They offer both buy-in and leadership within the organization.

Fletcher has hired several consultants to help engineer the reorganization in Utah. Their role, though, is to coach, not to lead.

"We have bright, capable and willing IT folks -- what we don't have is experienced ones," Fletcher said. Coaches bring in best practices and help zealots as they move forward. But outside consultants "are not the ones in charge of developing" the processes, Fletcher said.

The slow roll is still a challenge, however, especially in government, where civil service rules often make it difficult to push out employees who are hindering progress.

It is a common problem, because "every organization over time creates inefficiencies," Fletcher said. In the private sector, organizations react by restructuring, but "you don't often have that opportunity in the public sector."

Fletcher has that opportunity now. The state legislature agreed to shift all IT employees from merit status to at-will status, giving Fletcher and other managers more authority to reorganize their team.

Most government managers don't have it so well. Many of them have not been trained as managers. "They don't know how to deal with problem employees," Fletcher said. It can take one to two years "to turn folks around or to get them to leave the agency," he said. An inexperienced manager might not be willing to go through that process.

What kind of leader are you?

Every leader might aspire to be an alchemist -- someone who knows how to bring about sweeping change by integrating immediate and long-term goals and addressing both the material and spiritual facets of transformation, said management expert William Torbert.

But only 1 percent of people achieve that level, according to a study by Torbert, a professor at Boston College's Carroll School of Management. Most people fall into one of six other categories, Torbert found. These types -- or "ways of leading," as Torbert puts it -- are based on characteristics such as where they focus their attention and how they exercise their power.

Of course, most people cannot be easily pigeon-holed, and they often reflect a couple of different types in the course of their work. They also grow, moving from one end of the spectrum toward the other. But at any given time, they tend to have a primary "action logic" they follow when faced with a challenge.

Here is a quick rundown, based on Torbert's research:

  • Opportunists focus on winning in any way possible, taking a "might makes right" philosophy. Although the opportunists generally are a negative influence, they are productive in emergencies.
  • Diplomats rule by "consent of the governed" and avoid overt conflict. They can be a supportive influence in an organization.
  • Experts are efficient problem-solvers who know how to get work done. They rule by reason and are not interested in feedback from others, unless it comes from fellow experts.
  • Achievers focus on performance and outcome, knowing how to marshal the energies of a team toward strategic goals. They are often viewed as ideal leaders.
  • Individualists understand how to frame a vision that encourages public reflection and devise systems for resolving the gap between strategy and performance.
  • Strategists exercise the power of mutual inquiry as part of an effort to lead organizational and personal transformation. Only 4 percent of leaders are identified as strategists.
  • Alchemists can drive transformation on a broad scale, changing not only individuals and organizations but also societies.

-- John S. Monroe

Cool or conservative?

Randy Johnson, commissioner of Hennepin County, Minn., said government can only go so far in accommodating the style of young workers. All aspects of dress codes and standard work days cannot be negotiable.

"What's really important is that there is an appearance of accountability to the public," Johnson said. "The public of all ages has to be confident that your people are competent."

Appearing in casual clothes "might not make a difference to someone in their 20s, but it is going to make a lot of difference to older people," he added.

-- John S. Monroe

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