Found in translation: How one person unites a leadership team

An agency's business leaders speak a different language than its technology heads, but to accomplish the agency's mission goals they must communicate. At the intersection of these contentious constituents there is often one person providing translation.

Inside the Small Business Administration, you may find Chase Garwood, the new deputy CIO, walking the halls and speaking to people in what might sound like different languages.

He’s helping the agency drive its infrastructure modernization in his new role, and he has to translate the ins and outs of the enterprise architecture and other core strategies for two distinct groups: the business managers and the IT experts at the agency.

Early on, “I started out on the policy, planning and management side, but I could always translate between the policy folks and the IT folks,” he said in an interview Aug. 30.

That ability to communicate between separate but connected offices, phrasing things in ways that are understandable to each, is an invaluable skill. It helps agency managers understand the reasoning behind some decisions, and builds support for a mission that affects each of the offices.

It’s key that “the IT folks and the business and mission folks, who are dealing with our customers directly, are really in lock-step,” he said.

For example, enterprise architecture is one area that Garwood has to translate. On a basic level, the architecture establishes an agency-wide road map to achieving the agency’s mission goals at an optimal level. It makes business processes run at their peak within an efficient IT environment. In other words, enterprise architectures are blueprints for an organization. Garwood said the enterprise architecture construct is vitally important for a successful infrastructure at SBA, as it breaks down isolated systems and builds a more interconnected infrastructure.

But it is important that the business management and the IT experts be on the same page of the blueprint, even though they may see the page from different angles.

“Whether or not you’re in strategic planning, enterprise architecture, security, or what not, we have to make sure folks are 'matrixed in' together, and they understand that it’s not an individual special functional area, but really one team,” he said.

Garwood arrived at SBA July 30 from the Homeland Security Department, where he had worked since its inception. He has been part of leadership teams in multiple DHS components and programs, including most recently as CTO for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program.

He's not the only manager who has discovered the value of matrixing people together. Elaine Duke, former undersecretary for management at DHS, said she would bring together her C-Suite of senior department officials, including the chief financial officer, chief human capital officer and chief security officer, for regular meetings. She would let each of them  them make pitches for funding for certain projects and programs. Then they would discuss the proposals. That became another means of translating, of helping people communicate when they have different priorities and concerns, she said. The meetings would build understanding within the executive team about the funding decisions that DHS made, even though they might still not agree.

The discussions are “good for [senior officials] to hear for a frame of reference,” said Duke, who's now president of Elaine Duke and Associates, a consulting firm.

Just as the senior officials are listening to each other, strong agency leaders have to be good listeners and communicators. They are building the coalitions and teams within their organization to advance its mission, said Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. Officials have to explain the issues with their hearer in mind. Officials in policy, technology, and program management listen for different aspects to an issue.

Similarly, Duke said approaches to communication change when dealing with appropriators and authorizers on Capitol Hill, for instance. The appropriators are interested in quantitative information, the dollar figures. Authorizers may be geared more toward qualitative data, or how well a program is expected to work.

In addition, strong leaders must be able to make reasoned decisions, even among all the competing voices and needs, said Waldron, former senior procurement executive at the General Services Administration.

As deputy CIO, Garwood has to steer the agency in the direction of oncoming methodologies for delivering IT more efficiently and in shorter cycles.

The federal budget situation and the push to increase productivity with scarce resources have made senior government officials hunt for savings. Garwood said he plans to continue SBA’s efforts to share services and take advantage of systems other agencies have already built, which is team building beyond SBA. For example, SBA is already teaming up with the Treasury Department for human capital performance systems and HR employee training.

“That’s showing some cost-savings and operational efficiencies, which allows us to deal with any kind of cuts,” he said.

Garwood expects to be heavy in the operational end of modernizing SBA’s IT infrastructure. He’s partnering with Eric Won, SBA’s CIO, in developing IT strategies. His mission though is making sure the agency advances toward the modernization goal. And it comes down to people.

“We don’t accomplish anything without people,” he said.

NEXT STORY: Obama vs. Romney on cybersecurity

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