Commentary: Leadership

Don't take your posse to your new job

Wanted poster bob woods

A posse made up of friendly faces might bring you comfort in a new job, but bringing them along is probably a bad idea, writes Bob Woods.

I like Westerns. They don’t require a lot of mental activity, and they make for good Friday night entertainment. That is the entertainment you seek when it’s been a hard week. I don’t like movies where a big fish is biting people. That too closely resembles a replay of the workweek. Give me a lawman and his loyal posse battling cattle rustlers on the open range.

In the modern world, however, “posse” doesn’t mean a lot of people with hats chasing some person who shot the sheriff. In federal IT and elsewhere, the term today means bringing a lot of your fans into the organization from your last organization — in other words, bring your own people. After all, they already understand you and know your priorities and quirks. They’re the comfortable shoes you’ve already broken in. For decades, I have watched this process at work. We in the IT world know that no one understands what we go through. Comfort is more important than progress, and someone will watch my backside.

The IT community is renowned for its jargon and inability to translate concepts into plain language. So we’re left with limited choices. We can learn the mission and the business, or we can surround ourselves with planet Pluto people who speak the same jargon we do. We can develop a witch doctor routine that keeps the unwashed at bay, and build a perimeter of people who shake their heads knowingly. Or we can go out and support mission principles, trying to serve our agency constituencies better.

We like posses because they bring trust and comfort, but they don’t work because they create distrust and discomfort for the current staff.

We like posses because they bring trust and comfort, but they don’t work because they create distrust and discomfort for the current staff. You haven’t lived until you try to brief or deal with a new leader who surrounds himself or herself with past friends or cronies. You don’t share the inside jokes, the references or the values. Soon you either abandon them or join the underground resistance. Either way the organization loses.

Other than giving up and putting one’s head in an oven, what’s an IT leader to do? First, give the people in the new organization a chance to make your team. Although they might be just “old Martha or George” to your predecessor, they are new people to you. Will they respond or will they return to their original shape? Every one of them who makes the team will inspire others and send the message that it’s a new day.

Second, challenge members of the new group to be all they can be. Slogans sound corny, but most of us want to be more than we are. Giving the rank and file the idea that there is a predetermined inside track does not often inspire them to perspire.

So everyone lives happily ever after? Not quite. Not every bird in the flock will be an eagle. You might have to take on the difficult ones, and drastic actions might be required. If those steps are needed, take them early. It might be gut-wrenching to do it, but an example or two might be good for the organization, provided they are justified. A festering sore will weaken the organization.

In the end, leaders have to make it on their own. Stacking the deck or bringing in your own choir will not make your song sound sweeter. Leadership is hard work. It’s gratifying and challenging. So just say no to posses.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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