Servant Leadership: The 8 Things Every New Department Director Needs to Know

A checklist for your first 90 days.
by | January 24, 2011 AT 7:00 PM

First, thank you. I thank you because it's likely nobody else will. It's a thankless job. The legislature and the media will be all over you. The person who just hired you won't take your calls anymore. And of course in today's climate, you will have the additional thankless task of cutting the budget. But thank you for signing up. Success or failure of government often comes down to the quality of the men and women who fill these vital leadership roles. In the next four years, you will make decisions that will impact the fate of children, seniors, parolees, schools and the environment. You will spend enormous amounts of money and even more energy.

I have had the pleasure of serving department directors who in no time transformed their agency culture to become a force for good: unleashing ideas, creativity and passion. I've also watched in horror as their replacements told people to get back in their cages. Department directors end their tenures feeling one of two ways: Either they're in awe of their people and grateful for the chance to lead them, or they're bitter and frustrated, convinced that the problems of government are intractable and that people hate change. What will make the difference for you?

Having witnessed countless new directors come and go, I have come to believe your success boils down to two things: 1) the lens with which you view government, and more specifically government workers; and 2) your first 90 days.

Below are my eight best ideas to help you make the difference I know you want to make.

1. Check your assumptions. What do you believe about government? Is government a force for good in this world? Is it a necessary evil? Is it a football field where two teams are trying to score points against each other and the winning team gets to hire their friends? What do you believe about government workers? Are they slow and inefficient? Do they lack motivation and accountability? Are they all partisan hacks hired by the previous administration and working overtime to thwart your every move?

Your beliefs will drive your behaviors. People often perform to the expectations we have of them. If you think your workers are lazy and untrustworthy, they will prove you right. If instead you view them as passionate and talented, they will prove you right as well. Granted, you will have a few bad apples. You will have the guy who takes the state car to the strip bar. You will have the niece of the previous governor's barber running one of the biggest divisions you have. But these are the exceptions. The rest of your workforce is phenomenal.

The most common thing I hear from outgoing department directors is, "I can't believe how hard the people work around here." Don't wait four years to figure this out. Come into the job knowing this, and then do what you can to remove the obstacles that keep these hard-working people from doing all the good they are capable of.

2. Honor the past. For some of you, your appearance on the scene might be heralded like the fall of Saddam. The employees will be pounding the portraits of the previous director with their shoes and weeping with joy that the oppressive regime is over. You're lucky: Anything you do will be better than the last guy. Many others of you, however, will likely be replacing someone the organization cherished. You might be taking over for the 20-year deputy who filled in admirably the last few years as the big boss. You might be replacing the advocate who brought a renewed sense of vigor and purpose to the staff. You might be replacing a deeply humble, thoughtful leader who always had an open door and a kind word.

In short, there might not be any parade for you. Some new directors let this get under their skin. They rip down all the old posters, bury past initiatives and denigrate the accomplishments of their predecessor. They rename every council or group and immediately distrust those from the prior inner circle. Don't do this. It makes you look small. The organization needs time to grieve. There has been a major upheaval: Lives and fortunes are changed. Honor this feeling. Let people grieve. Let them move from denial to anger to acceptance. Be slow to criticize the past. See the good in past accomplishments and encourage them to do more. Understand the past initiatives and see if they can be accelerated. Get to know the key people and see if you can see what the previous boss saw. This isn't to say you shouldn't have a bold agenda or want to make big changes. I hope you do. Just be sensitive to what you are inheriting.

3. It's not so much what you say, but what you do. If you stay in the office until 7 p.m., you will soon notice that more and more people start staying until 7:00 as well. Is this what you want? If so, congratulations. If not, then let people know: "I expect you to be home with your family for dinner." Do you park in a special parking space? How big is your office? One of the coolest things I ever saw a new director do was downsize his office. It sent a clear message to everyone, that this job was a calling, not an ego trip.

4. Do the work. Our beliefs drive our behaviors, but where do our beliefs come from? Our point of view. To change beliefs, we have to change our perspective. The best way to do that is to view the organization from bottom up. In the reality show Undercover Boss, senior executives work undercover in their own firms to see how well the company actually works. The show's a little schmaltzy, but it's a good lesson for new leaders. You will learn more from spending time on the front lines, doing the mission work of the agency, than you ever will in all your senior staff meetings. For your first 90 days, devote an hour a day to go somewhere in the organization and learn someone's job. Spend time in the phone center listening to calls. Ride around with the child protective workers and the parole officers. Listen to the engineers as they debate designs. It is important that you use these precious moments to listen and learn, not to "create buy-in." Learn how to do the work, and most importantly, learn what system constraints are impacting employees' performance. Are there policies, procedures or technology that need to be changed to help them out?

5. Spend time with your customers. I don't mean legislators, lobbyists and interest groups. (You'll hear plenty from them regardless.) Rather, actively seek the input and experience of those who use your agency's widgets. Again, our perspective drives our beliefs. In addition to viewing the agency from the bottom up, you need to see it from the outside in. My team was once brought in to help overhaul a state tax agency. One of the best things we ever did was to conduct focus groups with actual taxpayers, having them compute and file their own taxes in front of our senior managers. What an eye-opening (and potentially violent) experience!

As I have written about extensively here at Public Great, there is nothing wrong with the DNA of government employees. We are not predisposed to be slow, inefficient and lacking a customer focus. Rather, we, like any organization with hostage customers, suffer from the malaise that comes from lack of competition. When customers have no choice, they often get no voice. (Think of the cable company, your local school or your hospital.) The surrogate for competition is high expectations. The best place to get those expectations is from the people you serve. Your job as the leader should be to give your customers a voice and let everyone in the organization hear it. Their goals should be your goals.

6. Focus on the mission. It will be easy to get distracted by IT, HR, legal and procurement. They will place enormous demands on your time and money. Do not let them trick you into thinking that they are why the agency exists. I have seen countless senior staff meetings where the agenda is dominated by HR, facilities and IT. Ten division heads around the table, and only two of them do the mission work of the agency. Then they take a vote: "Who here thinks we should fund the employee recognition program out of Jim's operating budget?" Poor Jim.

The two divisions that do the actual work of the agency end up serving the other eight — who are supposed to be supporting them. This is upside down. The support divisions (admin, IT, HR, facilities, procurement, legal and so on) exist to serve the operating divisions (those that do the mission work of the agency). You need to do everything you can to make sure these priorities don't get flipped. Let the operating divisions talk first at staff meetings. Let their goals become the performance measures and strategic plan goals of the support divisions. Let their issues drive the agenda of the agency.

7. Frame the puzzle for the organization. As I wrote in an earlier piece, good leaders don't show up with all the answers. Rather, they lead with great questions. It is not your job to solve all of the problems. Your job is to make sure the organization is solving the right problems or scaling the right mountain. You provide direction and priorities. You frame the puzzles; they move the pieces. People love to solve puzzles — Sudoku, crosswords and jigsaws. And they solve those puzzles for the sheer challenge and satisfaction that accomplishment brings. You won't have to motivate them.

8. Find a good change agent. What separates truly excellent organizations from the ordinary ones? What allows some organizations to rapidly change and continually reinvent themselves while others have trouble making even modest improvements? The fundamental ingredient is the presence of change agents. Change agents are individuals who have the knowledge, skills and tools to help organizations create radical improvement. Rarely in a position of authority, they achieve results instead through their keen ability to facilitate groups of people, through well-defined processes, to develop, organize and sell new ideas — to solve the puzzles you have framed. They are the invisible hands that turn vision into action. They are a leader's best friend. Your division heads are there to manage your organization. The change agent is there to help you change the organization. They help make it happen, whatever it is going to be.

Our government agencies need leaders — good leaders. Men and women with large expectations and small egos. Men and women who ask big questions and rise above small answers. Men and women who see the good and inspire it become great. I thank you for being that person.