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Federal Coach: Mission impossible? Not for some federal leaders

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

Later this year, Tom Cruise will be starring in his fourth Mission: Impossible movie about a fictional federal agent saving the world from all sorts of extraordinary threats.

While I love an action movie as much as the next guy, the real-life federal employees tackling our country’s seemingly impossible missions are deserving of their own Hollywood blockbuster.

Some of you reading this column may think I’m joking, but anyone who attended the tenth annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) last week, an event hosted by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, understands exactly what I mean.

The award winners included a U.S. Geological Service (USGS) scientist who helped stop one of our country’s worst environmental disasters just when all seemed lost. There was a young fed who helped disrupt narcotics traffickers from funneling illicit cash from Mexican to U. S. banks, and a physician who is saving the lives of people suffering from disease so rare they don’t even have names.

Given all of the bad news confronting our federal government this year, it’s worth celebrating the work of these public servants and looking to their stories as a source of inspiration.

While the accomplishments were significant, the nine winners and the 25 award finalists almost to a person talked about their work as being part of a group effort. In some cases, it was an agency team responsible for the accomplishment. In other instances, it was cross-agency collaboration or work with foreign and private sector partners that made the difference.

As we look to improve government performance and do more with less in this increasingly complex and interconnected world, improving collaboration within agencies, and building relationships across government, across the globe and with the private sector will be more important than ever.

Paul A. Hsieh, the winner of the federal employee of the year award, Hsieh provided critical scientific information to convince federal officials that the containment cap on a ruptured Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was working, thereby helping end the environmental disaster. But Hsieh worked for weeks with a USGS team of experienced scientists in Houston and was part of much a larger federal effort.

Twenty-nine year old award winner Ann Martin not only had a team at her side from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network in Washington, but she worked closely with counterparts sin Mexico to study cross-border currency flows to disrupt the laundering of billions of dollars derived from illicit U.S. drug sales. The work would have meant little without the cooperation of the Mexican officials.

William A. Gahl, the founding director of the Undiagnosed Diseases Program at the National Institutes of Health, has saved patient lives and solved medical mysteries that have eluded diagnosis. But Gahl has not done it alone. He brings together a unique combination of elite medical specialists, researchers and federal resources to assist the patients

Brian Nilsson, part of the White House National Security Council staff, brought together key players from the Departments of Commerce, Treasury and State to begin reforming an outmoded and ineffective export control system.

At the Department of Justice, Charles Heurich created an innovative database that allows law enforcement, families and others to share information and potentially solve missing and unidentified person cases nationwide. Heurich worked with a team in Washington and a private contractor, but also had to gain cooperation and input from law enforcement and other officials from across the country to get the job done.

The lesson from these stories is rather straightforward. Each of these federal employees exhibited strong leadership qualities and was innovative. But they also needed and embraced their team members, and many found constructive ways to work with others outside their own agencies to accomplish their goals.

As Heurich said, “Leadership involves creating an environment where people are comfortable working together to meet a common goal.” A simple thought, but not always easily achieved.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Sep 21, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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