How to leverage front-line managers as change agents

Adam Cole is senior director of the Corporate Executive Board. This article is an excerpt from Corporate Executive Board’s “Guidance for Public Sector Executives.”

Over the last several years governments around the world have made the dual goals of efficiency and effectiveness hallmarks of their fiscal reforms. “Do more with less,” an old idea, is once again in vogue. But how does this mantra apply to managing people? Put simply, every organization has three fundamental human capital challenges: recruit the best people, create an infrastructure that supports high levels of productivity, and keep your high performers for long periods of time. Best-in-class organizations distinguish themselves by linking these three objectives. An organization cannot achieve peak performance without talented employees, nor can it sustain success without retaining its best people.

Unfortunately, most public-sector organizations have little near-term flexibility to reshape their hiring and retention strategies. Budget constraints guarantee that any new hiring will be focused on mission critical occupations, while insufficient differentiation in the overall performance management process hinders the retention of high performers. These constraints leave public-sector organizations with one option for enhancing operations through better talent management: They must ensure that the work environment for their current employees is conducive to high performance.

Corporate Executive Board research shows that performance cultures are characterized by openness of communication, flexibility of management and a focus on innovation. In many ways these attributes run counter to standard-operating protocols in federal agencies. For instance, open communication helps organizations address the inefficiencies presented by unnecessarily compartmentalized information and a lack of employee empowerment. However, the 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey showed that less than half of U.S. federal government employees feel personally empowered in their work, and only 51 percent of employees are satisfied with the information they receive from management.

Innovation is a similarly problematic construct in government. To achieve greater efficiencies organizations must take risk and challenge status quo processes, and in so doing, allow themselves to “fail and learn.” But failure is not an option in serving citizens and there is little tolerance (and often no reward) for risk-taking behavior – just 41 percent of government employees feel that creativity and innovation are rewarded.

Invariably, the most efficient and effective organizations focus on enabling employees. With intense pressure to achieve results, managers face substantial demands on their time. Given the sheer number of activities that a manager could pursue in supporting the performance of their team, which are the most effective? The checklist below can serve as an introspective, self-assessment to remind managers of the actions that will ultimately produce results.

A manager’s checklist for building a performance culture

Open Communications

  • Do you facilitate the flow of work-relevant information across teams?
  • Do you encourage your employees to share their opinion?
  • Do you provide sufficient guidance for employees to alter their behavior?


  • Do you encourage employees to work on new ideas despite uncertain outcomes?
  • Do you communicate that failure does not signal employee incompetence?
  • Do you reward employees for pursuing high-risk, high-return work?


  • Do you encourage employees to identify improved ways of doing things?
  • Do you demonstrate a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances?
  • Do you encourage the free flow of new ideas within your team?

About the Author

Adam Cole is senior director of the Corporate Executive Board.


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