Now is the time to act like mission control

Jeri Buchholz, former NASA CHCO and now strategic business development adviser for FMP Consulting, advises federal managers to begin preparing for a government ...

With the end of the fiscal year rapidly approaching and a cloud of uncertainty obscuring the new one, now is the time for federal leaders to dig deep and calmingly lead their people through to the new fiscal year. Like and Britney Spears say “everybody in the club, all eyes on us” (or the clean version if you prefer).

We’ve been here before. It feels like yesterday. I was completely convinced that this could never happen again — so much for my prognostication abilities.

We are all hopeful that there will be a continuing resolution. However, the federal government may get deep into shutdown planning in the week leading up to Oct. 1 and there may not be a continuing resolution until midnight on Sept. 30. We may spend a lot of time planning for something that we hope won’t happen. Mid-September we can all use a reminder that the federal workforce is watching all of us to determine how to react to events as they unfold.

Jeri Buchholz, Associate Administrator for OEM, studio portrait Aug. 10, 2011 at NASA Headquarters. Photo Credit: (NASA/Paul E. Alers)
Jeri Buchholz

Now, more than ever it’s time for federal leaders to act like mission control.

I’m not proposing that you go get a crew cut, buy a pocket protector, and start wearing white short sleeve polyester Dacron dress shirts (although that might be really amusing). I am reminding you that the most powerful tool you have is to model the behaviors that you want to see from the people in your organization. If they see you calm, prepared and competent, they will follow your lead.

Here are a few important things to remember that will help you get through the next couple weeks:

  • Executive demeanor. People look to you to be a leader and to look like a leader. If you are racing around with your hair on fire, people will assume there is something to worry about and start worrying. This will distract them from the very important work they are doing every day. In times of stress and uncertainty it is very important to project a calm, thoughtful image to the organization you are leading.
  • Role modeling. Your people will watch everything you do. Think carefully about your actions and how they impact others. If you want people to prioritize their work differently through the end of the month, prioritize your work differently. If you want people to operate “business as usual,” then come in at 8 a.m. and go home at 5 p.m. If you want people to make sure that they are all set to telework for an extended period of time, take your equipment home and work for a day to make sure that you are able to telework. Then talk about what you did, any challenges you faced and how you resolved them.
  • Open and frank discussion. If you’ve been through this before, you know that a lot of information will be embargoed and your ability to communicate with your workforce will be restricted. Be honest about what you know. Stick to the facts. Be timely in sharing information. It is perfectly OK to say, “I don’t know the answers to your questions and I promise that as soon as I know, you will know.
  • Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. Remember, they take away your computers, phones and iPads. Make sure that you know how to be in touch with your people outside official federal government communication mechanisms. Update your emergency contact lists and make sure that you have up-to-date information on everyone. This is a great time to test the communications components of your continuity of operations plans. Consider making Oct. 1 an emergency telework test day (no matter what happens) and send everyone home on Sept. 30 with everything they might need to make that happen.
  • Resilience. The hardest part of all of this is managing uncertainty. Get your head wrapped around that idea now. You are not going to have a lot of information. You are going to have to make judgment calls. You are simply going to have to do the best you can with the information you’ve got. Don’t be surprised by that.

With the end of the fiscal year you have a zillion things you have to do. Remember, none of those things get done without your people. Make those people a priority — be the kind of leader you always aspired to be. They will thank you for it.

Bringing doughnuts into the office on the morning of Oct. 1 won’t hurt either.

Jeri Buchholz is a strategic business development advisor for FMP Consulting and recently retired after 34 years in government. She formerly served as the chief human capital officer for NASA, and as the associate director for HR operations and policy at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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