21st-century employee management: Back to basics

In today's era of self-help books and self-proclaimed experts, many people profess to have the inside track on how to be a better leader. But after nearly two decades in the trenches, Bruce Tulgan’s proof is more credible than most. Since 1995, he has led training programs, written best-selling books on management topics and addressed audiences of tens of thousands of people. Management Today magazine dubbed him one of the few contemporary figures to stand out as a management guru, and those who've heard him speak compare him to the legendary Tom Peters.

After a stint as an attorney at Wall Street law firm Carter, Ledyard and Milburn, Tulgan founded RainmakerThinking in 1993. Since then, he and his Connecticut-based management training firm have worked with clients that span both the public and private sectors — from business titan Domino's Pizza to the Defense Department, from Lockheed Martin to the Labor Department.

In 2009, Tulgan was awarded Toastmasters International's Golden Gavel for excellence in communication and leadership — an honor he shares with the likes of Deepak Chopra and Walter Cronkite.

Tulgan recently took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with Federal Computer Week staff writer Camille Tuutti about trends in management and why he isn't a fan of undermanaging.

FCW: How do the ideas behind a 21st-century government apply to federal managers?

Tulgan: When it comes to federal managers managing employees, there are tremendous opportunities to take advantage of technology to promote a more flexible workplace. The more an employer is able to customize work conditions such as schedule and location, the better positioned that employer will be to recruit, motivate and retain the best talent.

However, it's impossible to be flexible and generous with all employees. You can't do everything for everyone. So what's a manager to do?

In my view, managers need to be in a position to do more for some employees and less for others based on what the employee deserves, based on the market value of his/her work, and based on his/her ability and willingness to perform consistently at a high level. Flexibility should be earned with above-and-beyond performance.

Indeed, probably the single most important thing federal managers could do isn't practicing some new-fangled 21st-century solution but rather practicing the old-fashioned basics of providing employees with regular, consistent guidance, direction and support.

FCW: What are some of today's emerging management trends?

Tulgan: One emerging trend that's quite important for federal employers right now is flexible retirement programs for the oldest, most experienced people. How can you stem the outflow among the employees in [that] age bubble of critical skill, knowledge, wisdom, institutional memory, relationships and the last vestiges of the old-fashioned work ethic?

What if you can find ways to help those who are on their way to retiring leave without leaving? Are there ways to keep some of your most valuable retiring employees — part time, flex time, as telecommuters, as consultants? Maybe your oldest, most experienced people — those you know the best and trust the most — can help teach your organization how to be flexible.

That's probably the most important cutting-edge trend relevant to federal managers right now.

FCW: Are there any management methods that seem outdated?

Tulgan: Some notion of false empowerment has become the prevailing approach in management thinking, books and training. In the false empowerment approach, managers shouldn't keep close track of employees and they definitely shouldn't zero in on employee failures. Employees should be made to feel they own their work and should be set free to make their own decisions. Managers are merely facilitators, there to align the natural talents and desires of employees with fitting roles in the workplace. Managers shouldn't tell people how to do their jobs but rather let employees come up with their own methods. The idea is make employees feel good inside, and results will take care of themselves.

But let's face it: Somebody is in charge, and employees will be held accountable. Employees don't have the power to do things their own way in the workplace. They aren't free to ignore tasks they don't like. They aren't free to do as they please. Rather, employees are free to only make their own decisions within defined guidelines and parameters that are determined by others according to the strict logic of the enterprise at hand.

Responsibility without sufficient direction and support isn't empowerment; it's downright negligent.

FCW: How can managers motivate employees and boost morale amid the public’s all-time low confidence in the government?

Tulgan: Only the rarest of managers has that special brand of charisma, contagious passion and infectious enthusiasm that inspires and motivates people. What about the rest of us? You may not be able to learn how to develop charisma, but you can learn to talk about the work in a straightforward and effective manner. You can learn to say the right words to your employees at the right time [and] in the right way.

The most effective managers have a special way of talking. They adopt a special posture, demeanor and tone. They have a way of talking that's both authoritative and sympathetic, both demanding and supportive, both disciplined and patient. It's a way of talking that's neither Mr. Friend nor Mr. Boss, but rather nearly exactly in the middle.

FCW: What will be the biggest change in how the next generation of managers manages its employees?

Tulgan: The workplace will be increasingly diverse in every way, budgets will be tight, and competition for resources fierce. Meanwhile, maybe Gen Yers will be slightly more disposed to take on leadership responsibilities than the Gen Xers immediately before them. Xers were the great unsupervised generation after all and like to be left alone. Gen Yers are the great oversupervised generation and more amenable to team play.

But no generation has any special purchase on management. In every generation, there will be a handful of natural leaders, of course, but natural leaders are quite rare in any generation. And even natural leaders can't rest on their charisma, energy, vision and infectious enthusiasm. Even natural leaders need to practice the basics of management to succeed.

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