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What Transformational Leaders Do

A practical recipe for how a leader translates his or her action into accomplishments.

Much has been written about the attributes of leadership. Ability to communicate a vision, courage and integrity are surely qualities of great leaders. Our experience studying the transformation of public organizations is teaching us that, in addition to qualities like these, successful transformations are led by people who take certain actions. Public-sector leaders who are successful bringing about significant change seem to do these things:

They are relentless about staying on purpose. Governing in a democracy necessarily involves managing varying, often conflicting, interests. Organizations can easily get side-tracked responding to these interests, so leaders need laser focus. Nary a day goes by without New York City Finance Commissioner Martha Stark asking employees what they are doing to help people pay the right amount on time -- the mission of her agency. This drives change by focusing employees on what is most important.

They challenge their organizations with "unreasonable" or "impractical" goals. As the Soviet empire was crumbling and the German Wall coming down, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked his Cabinet to prepare contingency plans for the reunification of East and West Germany. Their "accelerated" plans foresaw the possibility of complete reunification in ten years. When the political opportunity presented itself, Kohl set a deadline for complete reunification in eight and a half months. They succeeded because Kohl was unreasonable.

They are ready to invest in change. Transforming organizations requires investment. Many leaders talk transformation, yet invest the organization's time and money in the same old ways. By contrast, leaders serious about transformation are willing to invest in change, even when they are in a budget crunch -- especially when they are in a budget crunch. Already strapped for cash and projecting a multimillion-dollar deficit, Jefferson County, Colo., Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson is committed to leading her organization through the fundamental changes necessary for her organization to serve the children of the 21st century. So much so that she and her board were willing to begin their 2006/07 budget process by setting aside $3 million in a "Strategic Investment Fund" to make one-time investments in change. What better time to invest in producing better results for the money than when money is short?

They create a high-level blueprint for change -- a picture of what the transformed organization will look like. Collecting dust on the shelves of many public executives are consultant reports that lay out a linear, step-by-step approach to change. Organizations are human systems. One wouldn't consider to be realistic an 18-year, step-by-step plan for the development of a child. Neither is such a wise approach to organizational change. Smart leaders understand that transformation is akin to putting a picture puzzle together. People in the organization will add pieces to the puzzle as the opportunity presents itself. Thus, the leader must create the picture on the puzzle box so that people in the organization can all work on the puzzle together. The late Greg Woods, leader of the transformation of the U.S. Federal Student Aid Office, began his tenure at FSA by creating a technological and organizational blueprint for the future. He and his team then spent the next four years moving the organization toward that vision.

They get personally involved with the day-to-day issues involved in change. Public executives are very busy people. Just being a good administrator is a 150-percent job. Leading a public organization through change requires the executive to find a way to invest significant time, energy and political capital in the change process. As director of Iowa's Department of Management and later as then-Governor Tom Vilsack's chief of staff, Cynthia Eisenhauer always made time for work on the governor's transformation agenda. As a result, the day-to-day work of Iowa state government got done even as lasting fundamental changes were being brought about.

They are willing to celebrate what is good about the past. People do what the system rewards. When leaders are changing the system, it is easier for people to move on if what they had been doing is celebrated. Before launching her organization into a major change, former University of Minnesota Extension Service Dean Dr. Katherine Fennely had her team make a comprehensive list of the existing organizational attributes they most valued, and the traditions that helped the Extension Service be so successful in the past. Many of her people readily accepted the new ideas and new directions after their work had been validated.

Evidence shows that successful leaders have certain qualities. It also shows that what leaders do also matters.

Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.
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