4 pillars of high performing federal agencies

The federal government is facing the same talent crunch as private sector organizations. Particularly with pending government retirements, it is more important ...

The federal government is facing the same talent crunch as private sector organizations. Particularly with pending government retirements, it is more important than ever for agencies to build effective team environments that empower employees and offer career roadmaps that will strengthen retention and commitment.

Positioning employees for success is inextricably linked to providing them with the right tools and technologies to enable their work. As with operational activities like technology or infrastructure planning, building successful, effective teams must be treated like a long-term investment, not a check-list activity. Agencies should focus on four foundational pillars to support that investment, and work to bolster both a strong workforce and workplace that will power agency missions for the long term:

1. The individual
Everything starts with a person’s desire to succeed. Each individual needs to identify their own goals tied to their unique ambitions and aspirations. There are some particular areas where goal-setting will directly affect success.

Start with education. While this may include formal schooling, it’s also about life learning, perhaps in tackling a new assignment or developing a new skill. Because the world – and sometimes our interests – evolve, it helps to approach educational goals in three-to-five-year increments. Next, individuals should think about the job they have today and the one they’d like tomorrow. There will be steps toward any job that an aspirant will need to take. It is helpful to look at the paths taken by others who have been successful in one’s area of interest, and learn from what they did to achieve their success. Setting a job goal over time also allows workers to find mentors and coaches that can help them achieve that goal.

Another important consideration is finances: how much one makes, and how much one aspires to make. Think through savings and retirement goals, and life milestones like buying a home or having a family. To that end, family – in whatever form that takes for an individual – also factors into career path. Building a solid family or community foundation will provide support needed through both good and turbulent times. Finally, health – physical, emotional and spiritual – rounds out the picture, as maximizing one’s health underscores the ability to perform and contribute.

2. The leader
Building the right bridge between a person early in their career, which allows them to grow into a seasoned professional, is linked to horizontal and vertical relationships within an organization. Leadership growth depends on having people you can trust and confide in. It also means that as a leader, you can’t treat everyone as an “A-level” player – sometimes they’re not – or they’re not yet. A leader’s job is to coach and help improve the level of each person on their team, wherever they are starting from. Trying to force “A-level” player requirements on a “D-level” player only means they will struggle, and that does not help them or the organization.

Getting to know individuals on a team beyond their name tag will give leaders the needed insight on how to manage each contributor. Genuine care and concern about team members, strong listening skills and treating everyone with dignity and respect are leadership qualities team members value. They will enthusiastically follow and support a leader that demonstrates these qualities.

3. The team
Connecting all team members with each other is just as important. Every organization has people at different levels of experience; each of them has a different way of learning and executing a task. It helps to find a trustworthy person within the organization that can translate a leader’s directive to what it means for each individual, especially when the leader’s bandwidth is limited and their attention is required elsewhere. Teams can be strengthened through exercises, events and projects, with guidance throughout, that helps them see the end state. Part of the process is allowing a team to struggle, and maybe even fail. Reacting to failure constructively is when people really learn about each other, and the leader must coach them through it. Recognizing each individual’s successes also makes people feel connected to the team, and will encourage them to contribute more in the future.

4. The mission
Achieving mission objectives often depends on maximizing assets. The workforce is one of the most important assets an agency will have. Listening to each team and getting their feedback provides clarity into the support they need to meet the greater organization’s goals. Technology is another critical asset. Similar to setting goals for individuals, goals should also be set for technology investments. Carefully considering where the agency needs to be in five years on its modernization program, supported by team input on their technology needs, will help identify the most beneficial areas in which to invest.

It takes all four of these pillars to effectively bridge employee engagement with the operations and technology that achieve mission success. Careful attention to each of them will position an agency, and collectively the government, to attract and retain a quality workforce that serves the nation’s needs well into the future.

Robert Ferrell is a retired three-star general with a 38-year career in the U.S. Army. He was the first African American to serve as the Army’s chief information officer.


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