FCW Forum | Workforce

Gold standard for a new order

Hardware, networks and processes once defined excellence in agency IT efforts. Now it’s you.

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICER: To give you a better appreciation of your changing — and now critical — role in government, let’s envision a character in our virtual world. We’ll call this avatar Gary Government. It’s 1961, and Gary is arriving for work at his new federal agency. He is very excited, his nameplate under one arm and an inbox under the other. (There is no outbox, you see, because Gary’s job description doesn’t yet tell him what “out” means.)

A few months later, I arrive to interview Gary for a local newspaper. I ask him to show me the “gold” in his agency. He jumps up and takes me to a stairwell leading to the basement of his building. There, he opens a door to a large, cool room and shows me a quietly humming mainframe computer. Gary boasts of its size, storage capacity and processing speed. “This is the gold,” he says proudly.

Ten years pass and I again interview Gary. When I ask him to show me the gold this time, he takes me to a large room full of charts. Gary describes his agency’s nationwide communications network of lines, modems and terminals in glowing terms. He is proud of his ability to transmit files and data over long distances.

Another decade passes, and Gary now anticipates my interview request by setting up a conference room presentation on his agency’s information processing, storage and data mining capabilities. Gary is justly proud of his system’s ability to process data and turn it into information critical to his agency’s mission.

We now reach the late 1990s, and Gary knows I will again ask to see the gold. However, this time I stay in Gary’s office while he remotely demonstrates his agency’s Web presence.

Gary then tells me of his many portals, Web sites and Web-based applications, adding, “This is the gold.” Fast forward to today. I have just arrived at Gary’s workplace. When I ask him to show me the gold once more, what does he do? He introduces me to you, his management team.

You are the new gold of the agencies. You are their most valuable asset, because you will determine what the government does, how it will function, what kind of steward it will be of resources and how it will serve the nation’s people.

Today we recognize a new management model that says leaders must do more than manage hardware, networks and systems.

They must also maintain broad perspectives, constantly connecting dots, leveraging resources, channeling influences and maximizing the potential for success.

So how do you do it? Managing effectively doesn’t come easy to the best of information technology managers. However, it can be learned and patiently applied to the new world order. I recommend adopting seven subtle management skills. I call them “gold watch” principles because they are what a retiring federal manager from the old school should be saying to a new hire.

1. Stand on the mountaintop.

From time to time, seek out mental vantage points that allow you to observe trends, understand messages, observe people, assess performance, and test new approaches and ideas.

2. Have out-of-body experiences. When you make a speech, write a memo or lead a staff meeting, put yourself in the other people’s shoes.

Think about how they will respond to what you say and how you say it.

Ask yourself what level of detail they will really need.

3. Learn to lead from the side. Recognize that work today is often accomplished through informal relationships that don’t appear on hierarchical organization charts.

Learn to influence people who don’t work for you by making compelling business cases. Take advantage of networks. If one doesn’t exist for your benefit, create one. Step into leadership voids on issues you are passionate about.

4. Sell, sell, sell.

Always make the case for the value of what you do, what you are accomplishing and what you will accomplish. Describe your strategic vision and contributions to the mission of your agency.

5. Think of yourself — and others — as valued business partners.

Few endeavors today are performed in a vacuum.

Rarely is work accomplished only in a single business function, discipline, stovepipe, department or even agency.

6. Create safe environments for all to contribute their wisdom. As time goes by, you will get smarter and more astute.

You will better understand issues and be more intuitive and perceptive.

And so will everyone else.

7. Value people, not projects.

Following these precepts will make you smarter and more assured about your opinions and positions. You will be better able to make difficult judgments and seek innovation.

You will be far more effective if you practice being the other person on the receiving end of your communication lines. You will broaden your ability to get needed resources and influences.

In an earlier time, we protected projects from outside influences. Today we need others to help us be successful.

Packaging is everything, so find good names for your teams, methods, innovations and ideas. These names will become the handles by which people will convey your thoughts and incorporate your ideas.

And finally, remember that your colleagues can help you. You would be foolish not to tap into the wisdom of all. On every occasion, from the staff meeting to the board meeting, make sure you seek and value everyone’s opinion, and make sure they know it. Then and only then will you benefit from the experience and expertise they bring to the table. Project outcomes are the evidence of valuable people.

I like a quote that is attributed to many people, including Shirley Chisholm, the first black member of the U.S. House: “Service is the rent you pay for your space on earth.” Working in government today is not about the agency that pays your salary, the party that controls the White House or Congress, or even the title on your door. It is about you and what you can accomplish for the public good. So work hard, serve your fellow citizens, make a difference … and pay your rent.

This article was adapted from a speech to the 2008 Graduating Class of the CIO University, General Services Administration, Aug.13, 2008.

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