Advice from a talent manager

Josh Bersin, president and chief executive officer of Bersin and Associates, an enterprise learning and talent management company in Oakland, Calif., recently published research on talent management challenges in the federal government. Bersin spoke with Federal Computer Week’s Mary Mosquera about some of the problems agencies face and the processes and motivators that could help solve them.   

FCW: What are some of the talent challenges for the federal government besides the obvious demographic changes?
Bersin: The demographic changes are one of the roots of the problems, but the real problems in talent management are the leadership and skills gap and low employee performance or engagement.

Because of the aging of the workforce and their impending retirement, leadership and skills gaps are opening up. This is also happening in the corporate world. Mid-level agency directors and supervisors are becoming in shorter supply as they retire, so the federal government has the problem of a leadership pipeline to build supervisory leadership skills to fill those roles.

A skills gap, especially in technical areas, is also growing. At the Department of Energy, for example, which has the potential to lead funding for R&D for new energy technologies and initiatives, you have a lot of older technical people that aren’t going to be around much longer.

Although there is a big interest now by young people in joining the federal government, it is not as true in the technical skills. There is a lack of interest in the federal government by technical professionals. Similar to the leadership pipeline, it’s a problem of not just training but of developing a whole series of career skills in the technical profession or trying to hire people out of private industry.

Many agencies have not yet implemented a pay-for-performance system or a well-developed performance management process, so when you ask federal employees how they feel about their peers and about their work, you get much lower ratings than you do in the commercial sector. There’s a lot of work in pay for performance in the commercial sector. I don’t think it is the panacea that people may think it is.

If you look at the way that adults are motivated in their careers, only a very small percentage of them are really motivated by pay: typically the very top executives and salespeople. Most of the rest of us work hard because we love our work, want to develop our careers and be contributing to the organization that we are a part of.

What frustrates us is not lack of pay but a lack of support, guidance, clear mission, no performance standards. Those things have much more impact on actual performance than the money.

FCW: How do commercial and federal employees differ in their view of work?
Bersin: I think the reason that people go to work in the federal government is that people want to help the country or the government to do something. They like helping people. They want to serve others. In the business world, that is less true.

Things that are considered nice to do in business, like goal alignment — a process where each work group in an organization has documented goals, and they are aligned toward the other goals in the organization — has great value. In business, if you’re in sales, you know what your mission is: to hit a certain target. It’s obvious that it is aligned to the rest of the organization.

In the federal world, it’s not always clear that, say if you’re in the IT department, that your job has a direct influence on the mission of the agency.

The clearer you can make that, the higher the performance and motivation will be. nbsp;

There are tremendously committed and technically skilled people, for example, at Energy. Because so many are retiring in a relatively short period of time, there isn’t another decade to build up those skills. The traditional apprenticeship model of building deep levels of functional skills can’t accelerate. There is more need now for formal career development programs and coaching to fill those gaps. It’s not hard to do, but it takes more money.

FCW: How do you turn around the loss of mid- to high-level federal leaders?
Bersin: The way you fill these gaps is through succession management and career development. The business world does this and the government is starting to deal with it.

Succession management identifies people who are ready for the next-level job and prepares them for that job. That means sometimes having multiple successors because you don’t know who will turn out to be the best person, continuously making decisions to move those people into those positions and developing them for the position. Sometimes it can take years to develop somebody for a high-level position.

Well-run businesses have learned that this is a core, almost risk management, process because leaders are always leaving. The role of leaders is complex, so suddenly within a week’s notice, you can’t make a decision about who is going to take a critical job when somebody leaves.

I don’t think the federal government has a lot of those processes in place.

It’s a tricky problem because you can’t do succession management without understanding the skills, capabilities and performance of the current people. That’s dependent upon performance management. The two are tightly related, and the performance management process has to be there first. I think because many agencies are focused on performance management that they’re going to quickly realize that they have to implement succession management.

You may never become the director of the agency, but you would like to have more responsibility at your job and make more money. Career development is a way to methodically get there.

In business, salespeople become sales managers. A lot of those programs exist in the federal government, but it should not just be at grade level but be career-level programs so you could step up through the grades.

The Defense Acquisition University, for example, has sophisticated career development and talent management processes, training and learning, and spends a lot of money on it. 

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above