Writing the CXO playbook

At a glance

The job descriptions of chief executives might detail their duties and responsibilities, but current chief information officers, chief financial officers and chief human capital officers have learned the following lessons about how to approach a transition situation.

  • Learn your specific business and programs quickly.
  • Familiarize yourself with agency’s businesses and programs.
  • Collaborate with other executives internally and externally.
  • Make changes in the existing framework.
  • Encourage a long-term management agenda.
  • Promote employee accountability and measure for results.
  • Be careful where you cut jobs.
  • Be creative to attract new federal employees.
  • Understand the budget effects of major programs.
  • Be aware of the concerns of congressional authorizing and appropriating committees.

  • When federal chief executives take office, whether they are political appointees or career professionals, their first instinct is to jump headfirst into their new roles. 

    But they soon learn what the current group of federal executives already knows: Their positions are bigger than their job descriptions.

    No matter what letter the “X” in CXO stands for, executives should take the time first to learn the agency’s business and its programs, said Lisa Schlosser, chief information officer at the Housing and Urban Development Department. She recently returned to her HUD duties after a year’s military assignment in the Middle East.

    “What’s most critical is to take the time, learn the business, the programs,” she said. “Try to understand, through the experience of the employees who have been on the programs a long time, the complexities of the business.”

    At the same time, federal executives have to quickly learn their specific business and programs, said HUD’s chief financial officer, John Cox.

    A CFO might be adept at federal accounting, audit and financial management compliance activities. Agency executives might be integral to programs that encompass more than their organization, he said.

    HUD has a large role in mitigating the mortgage crisis, so the CFO must understand the core provisions and impact of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act passed in August. The department’s Federal Housing Administration plans to help as many as 400,000 homeowners in danger of losing their homes refinance them through community block grants. 

    Executives also need to take a broader view of and role in their community outside their specific office, Cox said. That means getting involved in cross-agency executive councils to identify and come up with solutions to governmentwide problems.

    Cox and other executives cited the benefits of learning best practices and working with colleagues in the same executive position at other agencies to solve situations that affect them all.

    For example, the CFO Council has established a process to reduce the accounting differences that occur when agencies trade with one another in intragovernmental transactions, he said. Reconciling those balances and resolving the accounting procedures will remove one of the major obstacles to the federal government receiving a clean audit from the Government Accountability Office.

    Collaboration among executives not only across agencies but in an agency has become critical, Schlosser said.

    The financial, acquisition, human resources and information technology executives and support teams within an agency need to work together to smooth the process for information technology strategic planning and the adoption of electronic business capabilities. As HUD’s CIO, Schlosser meets other department chief executives over coffee on a weekly basis to discuss strategies and plans.

    Watch out for rules, regs
    New administrations generally criticize government’s bureaucracy and want to change it, said Robert Howard, CIO at the Veterans Affairs Department. When executives go from the private sector into government, they have to realize that the federal process moves slowly. That’s because of all the rules and laws that government must abide by, he said.

    “For an incoming group, you do try to make change and move things along as fast as you can, but you have to do it within the existing framework,” Howard said. He recommended having a sufficient number of people on a team who know how to navigate the bureaucracy and how government works.

    VA is well on its way to centralizing its information technology environment. IT development, management and budget authority for VA’s health, benefits and burial administrations now fall under the department CIO, Howard said.

    That proc ess was accelerated after the theft in 2006 of a VA laptop PC that contained sensitive data on millions of veterans. Law enforcement officers later recovered the laptop, and the FBI determined that the culprits did not access the sensitive data.

    Instead of centralizing in phases as it originally planned, VA agreed to move at full throttle at the urging of Congress and other subject experts.

    “A lesson learned was that VA probably did not conduct a sufficient in-depth assessment before taking the steps that we took,” Howard said. “We discovered a lot of issues that we need to address.”

    His military experience would have guided him to conduct an in-depth study, analyze the existing conditions and determine the objectives.

    “We could not have done it [because] the situation was so heated,” he said. “It would have been more correct had everyone remained calm and [taken] the time to analyze what we were dealing with and done it a little more slowly.”

    Avoid the agenda fade
    Administrations often arrive with a plan to improve the management of government operations, including IT, financial management and grants, said Mike Carleton, CIO at the Health and Human Services Department.

    But often those internal management-improvement initiatives fade over time as public policy and program issues become priorities for the people who run agencies, he said.

    “The management agenda that’s been part of this administration has been persistently attended to throughout the entire Bush administration,” Carleton said. It demonstrates that a management agenda can have staying power.

    That management agenda included pushing agency executives to set some ambitious goals and gauge their progress toward reaching them. They also had to work through some of the IT challenges in an interagency way instead of just in their own agencies.

    For example, before coming to HHS, Carleton was CIO at the General Services Administration, which was the managing partner for several e-government initiatives, including the Integrated Acquisition Environment and e-authentication and the IT Infrastructure Line of Business.

    Federal projects can be complex and challenging. Keith Nelson, HUD’s chief human capital officer, advised new executives to aggressively work on the hard projects and not give up.

    “That’s what leadership is about,” he said.

    Define clear goals for employees
    HUD and other agencies are wrestling with ideas for making employees more accountable and for measuring how their performance translates into specific results, Nelson said.

    Organizations in some agencies and some senior managers are moving toward pay-for-performance systems. However, HUD is focusing on implementing an effective performance management system by using standards and goals in the performance ratings of employees.

    The employee and human resources managers can track the ratings and assessments online through E-Performance, an automated performance management system owned and operated by the Treasury Department as part of its HR Connect human resources management system.

    The IT system helps make the process transparent to employees and managers, he said.

    An effective performance management system has clearly defined goals for the agency and for every employee for a given year. The goals must link the daily work of an employee to the goals for the agency. The standards must be written thoughtfully with input from the employee and the manager, he said. The manager sets the standards; the employee has to understand them and have discussions about them upfront.

    “Some standards I’ve seen in the past were very subjective,” Nelson said. “It’s very challenging to rate people fairly when you have stand rds that are open to interpretation.” A good performance management system is the first step to a pay-for-performance system, he added.

    When new administrations establish themselves, they often want to reduce the number of government employees, said Jim McDermott, chief human capital officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Be careful where you cut,” he added.

    Organizations rely on effective first-level supervisors. They are the face of management to employees and can encourage a happy and productive workforce, he said.

    Employees “do the real work that creates the results that everyone wants,” McDermott said. “They have got to be empowered to do their part of the mission. If you do need to trim, start at the top of the tree rather than at the essential branches.”

    To increase accountability, he also recommended that organizations become more horizontal instead of managing through layers of hierarchy.

    “If you want accountability, flatten your organization,” McDermott said. “The more levels you have, the mushier it gets.” 


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