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Federal Coach: National Weather Service Director Jack Hayes on his organizations atmosphere

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

John L. "Jack" Hayes is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant administrator for weather services and National Weather Service director, responsible for an integrated weather services program supporting the delivery of weather, water and climate services to government, industry and the general public.

What’s it like to work for an organization that millions of people rely on daily?

Think about the awesome power and mystery of the atmosphere and the elements out there and being able to deliver forecasts to fundamentally protect life and property. What can be more fulfilling than that? I spent 28 years in the Air Force and swore to defend our nation against its enemies. In a certain way, one can consider severe weather as an enemy of the United States. I might have changed uniforms, but it's the same job—to protect Americans.

Every forecast office I visit I find the same thing—dedicated, passionate, smart people who truly believe in the mission. In Alabama, in the wake of the April 27th tornadoes, a forecaster on duty monitoring the tornadic outbreak on the radar saw a tornado headed for his neighborhood. He called his wife to say, "Make sure you get to a safe location." They had no basement. They were in an inner room in a tub with pillows on top of it. He said, "I couldn't go home to be with my family. I have a responsibility to the community." That's the ethic I saw in the military too. It's an honor and a privilege to work with these people.

One other story will stay with me the rest of my life. That tornado outbreak in Huntsville came in three waves—early morning, late morning and then the big bad one in the afternoon. There was a [pregnant] forecaster who was past due and knew there was a threat. But she knew we were under the gun and needed staffing and she worked over 12 hours that day.

How does leading a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week workforce make your leadership responsibilities unique?

The weather doesn't operate by the clock, so vigilance is required 7 by 24. The perception is that if we’re going to have severe weather tomorrow, you come in early that day and you go home after it's over and you wind down. But that isn’t the case. The forecasting and coordination actually starts as many as five days in advance. [Employees] then work at a feverish pace during the event itself. There can be 12, 15 even 18 hours when they're under the gun. Then for up to several days after an event, such as the Alabama and Joplin tornadoes, we have people on the ground doing storm surveys and service assessments to learn how to do a better job the next time, even if you did everything right this time. When people lose their lives, there's always a way to do something differently.

What are the challenges of your position?

Every day there's a new challenge. For instance, the FAA depends on the weather service to provide aviation-related weather forecasts and services for air traffic management and safety. We had some less than happy customers there. It turned out that the FAA doesn't care what the temperature forecast is unless it affects air traffic safety or management. In an experiment in New York City, we put more employees into the forecast office to focus on the air traffic control center for the five area airports. In three months, we reduced the number of weather-related air traffic delays by 10 percent. There’s a $185 million economic savings right there. I'm now trying to broaden that across all of FAA’s 21 air traffic control centers.

How do you manage a workforce located all over the country?

We pick good people and hire leaders who are strong scientists and have a high sense of integrity. America deserves a weather service that's equipped with the best. Then we treat them the way I'd want to be treated if I were working those long hours trying to protect America. We empower local managers to make the tough decisions. We get to know community leaders and their needs, and the local conditions that might affect the path and intensity of the storm. We partner with emergency managers so the right hand knows what the left hand's doing, critical when severe weather strikes. It saves lives.

I have to defend every hiring decision I make. The reality is the best ballplayers in the world don't bat a thousand. I believe in people fundamentally, so when I have a struggling employee who I sense is trying, I invest time in growing that employee. That's the responsibility a leader has.

How do you keep your employees motivated when forecasting the weather can be a tricky science?

When you have a mission to protect Americans, you don't see much finger-pointing. If we haven't done a good job, rather than point fingers we lock arms and say, "What is it that we could have done better?" I send emails or call the meteorologist in charge when they’ve done a good job. And they’ll say, "Gosh, they noticed," and that does great things. I went to Alabama in part to say thank you for a job well done. That’s very important. The forecast office appreciated that people in D.C. do more than just levy a requirement and demand perfection. It's not the pay that keeps us in this job. It's the feeling of mission and doing something good.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jun 29, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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