What causes ‘leadership deficit’ at agencies?

Two former federal human-capital experts joined In Depth with Francis Rose for a for a conversation about leadership and management at federal agencies: Jeff Ne...

Leadership manuals often point to the individual qualities that make for a good managers — which are different than the characteristics shared by technical experts.

However, federal agencies typically promote technical experts to senior management positions. Some management experts wonder whether there’s a lack of true management expertise at agencies.

Two former federal human-capital experts joined In Depth with Francis Rose for a for a conversation about leadership and management at federal agencies.

Jeff Neal, senior vice president at ICF International, was a career federal employee for 33 years, including most recently as chief human capital officer of the Homeland Security Department and before that with the Defense Logistics Agency.

Ron Sanders, a senior executive adviser and fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton, served as the Intelligence Community’s first chief human capital officer and as a high-ranking official at the Office of Personnel Management, where he oversaw efforts to implement the Senior Executive Service’s pay-for-performance system.

Below, find commentary written by Ron Sanders, on “closing the leadership deficit.”

Closing the Leadership Deficit
Ron Sanders, senior executive adviser, Booz Allen Hamilton

In today’s federal government, from an agency’s front-line to its executive suite, much depends on good leaders and effective leadership. Good leaders don’t just manage well (that’s necessary but not sufficient), but also envision, engage, and inspire. However, if the OPM’s latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is any gauge, Federal workers don’t believe their bosses are up to the challenge. In short, there’s a leadership deficit.

Part of the problem may be that the government’s managerial ranks are disproportionately populated with individuals who may once have been technical experts of the highest order, but who are now being placed into leadership positions for which they’re ill-equipped. It’s not their fault, at least generally. There are all sorts of systemic reasons for this part of the leadership deficit. For example:

  • The archaic GS classification system pretty much forces our best technicians to become managers if they want to be promoted above a certain level
  • It’s far easier to assess a managerial candidate’s technical skills than it is his or her leadership potential…that’s too ‘squishy’ for risk-averse HR offices
  • Our bureaucratic, rule-based culture subtly values hard technical competencies over soft ones like the ability to inspire or engage
  • While leadership competencies can be learned, there’s little money left these days for investing in leadership development, with its ROI perceived as uncertain.

However, there are solutions. For example, even under the GS, it’s not impossible to establish ‘dual career tracks’ for managers and technical experts, so you don’t force the latter to lead in order to progress. Other solutions are more ambitious: for example, retooling of our decades-old classification system to address the realities of 21st century government. Booz Allen and the Partnership for Public Service are formulating recommendations in this and other areas as part of our joint Blueprint for a 21st Century Civil Service project.

There are other things agencies can do now to eliminate the leadership deficit, instead of waiting for a change in the law. For example, they can learn how to better assess leadership potential, through live and virtual simulations and managerial ‘readiness’ programs that let technical experts act in various leadership capacities to assess their potential.

In that regard, agencies shouldn’t hesitate to single out and invest in those that demonstrate that potential. It’s easier to make the business case for leadership development programs if they’re targeted at those individuals that show the most aptitude to lead, rather than defaulting to a ‘one size fits all’ approach that tries to develop everyone who is eligible for promotion. This means real succession planning and contrary to conventional wisdom, that’s not at all at odds with merit principles.

Finally, agencies can recognize the value of leadership excellence and reward it. Include and emphasize it in supervisory and managerial performance standards which typically over-weight technical competencies, and then make being a good leader worth it! Money may not be a motivator, but it is a differentiator, and agencies that are willing to single out and reward good leaders will find that their leadership deficit will eventually disappear.

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