Workforce Wonk

By Alyah Khan

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Feds: Don't waste time complaining

What does it take for federal employees to succeed in the government’s current belt-tightening environment?

According to Tom Fox, vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, feds must continue to push their programs and resist succumbing to feelings of frustration.

“You can either complain about it or do something about it,” Fox said, referring to ongoing talks about budget and possible workforce cuts.

Fox, who writes the Federal Coach column for the Washington Post, talked with Federal Computer Week about the federal workforce’s biggest challenges and what makes a federal manager successful. (Responses have been edited for length, clarity and style)

FCW: What do you see as the federal workforce’s most pressing issues right now?

Fox: I think there are two big picture issues in my estimation. From a senior leadership perspective, it’s retaining your best talent in light of all the talk of budget cuts and the general perceptions of negativity – that’s one big bucket of activity. A related activity is keeping morale up in light of all those challenges.

FCW: What are some of the most popular questions/topics of inquiry you receive from readers of your FedCoach column? 

Fox: I think there are really sort of three big topics. One is how do I lead and effect change within my agency from folks that are mid-level employees. The second one is really around dealing with poor performers…whether it’s poor-performing employees or a bad boss. The third is how to get ahead. These are really the challenges of leaders in any sector. They’re just often times all the more difficult in the public sector.

FCW: What do you think are federal managers' biggest challenges at this time?

Fox: I think there are two issues here. The first is programmatic -- how do I reduce costs without causing programmatic harm. For leaders a notch below the challenge is continuing to meet or exceed goals in light of reduced funding…how do I really retain, or almost re-recruit the best, most experienced talent when I don’t have the same sort of financial incentives. There’s the financial perspective and the employee engagement perspective.

FCW: What are some words to live by for a federal manager?

Fox: Never take 'no' for an answer. It’s that ‘never say die attitude’ to make sure you are really remaining passionate in pursuit of your agency’s goals. In any organization, 'no' is always the easier answer for a senior leader to deliver.

And for your team, it’s put your people first. Managers focus so much on the technical aspects of their program … if folks just spent more time in one-on-one meetings with their direct reports they could expand performance and results by magnitudes.

FCW: What makes a successful federal manager?

Fox: At whatever level folks are in, if they can make the people around them better that’s going to make them successful. Also, if you can really understand the operating context within your team, within your agency, again, I think you will prove yourself a great asset and succeed. In addition, maintain a sense of realistic optimism about the obstacles your team or agency faces. You can’t sound too naïve or you’ll lack credibility.

Posted by Alyah Khan on Jul 08, 2011 at 12:20 PM


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