Thomas Williams’ entire 30-year professional career has been spent in the federal service.
“I started off in the military and moved to civilian service overseas at a GS-2 level, mainly in the financial areas, and worked my way up,” he said. “When I came back to the United States, I began to work for the Department of Health and Human Services, where I worked at NIH (National Institutes of Health) for many years in various positions and ultimately became the financial management officer at one of the institutes there.” With stops at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Food and Drug Administration along the way, Williams landed in his current job as assistant administrator for resource and technology management at the Energy Information Administration within the Department of Energy. There, he oversees the financial resources and management functions, as well as human capital and human relations functions. He also oversees information technology at DoE’s data centers.
“My family has a pretty robust history in federal service,” said Williams, whose wife is a retired federal employee. “My father was basically a lifetime civil servant, retired now. My grandfather did some pretty big things when he was in the civil service and my youngest daughter also works for the federal government based on my recommendation. I think it’s a great place to work.”
Williams’ enthusiasm for public service and his leadership inspired a fellow EIA employee to nominate him for a Top Leader award.
“He is an inspiration to all of us who aspire to make a difference in the public sector. After all, that is why I joined the federal government. And, he has a deep-rooted conviction for public service and has worked vigorously for EIA and its employees to ensure successful achievement in many aspects of the mission and he inspires me to do the same as well and someday become an effective federal leader like him,” the employee wrote.
Williams: I admire leaders that are capable of using a variety of leadership styles. I don’t think that there is any leader who hasn’t at one time or another been asked or thought about how to answer the question, “What’s your leadership style?”
We all generally have a preferred leadership style. I think what makes truly great leaders, and what I admire most, are leaders that can use what I call a situational leadership style.
Leading is not about a specific style or approach. Perhaps never in the history of the federal workplace has generational diversity been so broad. This brings with it people with a diversity of background, diversity of thought, diversity of motivation and diversity of approach, to name a few.
Good leaders understand this, appreciate and value this, and can engage and connect with all of these folks on what are very different levels of personal and organizational dynamics. One-size-fits-all leadership is a thing of the past. Leadership is about building relationships. It is very difficult to build relationships with diverse people using a single, non-diverse style.
Williams: In a single word, I’d say “trust.” To effectively lead people, they must trust you. They need to know that you’ve got their back covered. As the leader, you have to trust that people are going to have your back as well. Building a performance-based culture requires trust as its foundation.
I want people to let me know where the problems are, not hide them. I want people to want to be accountable for achieving results, not shy away from challenges. I want people to point out issues that they see in approaches to meeting organizational goals, not just quietly agree if they feel the proposed path forward is not right or could be improved upon.
You don’t want to react badly toward, or blame, the people that identify problems that arise. You don’t want to publicly berate an otherwise good employee when you spot an error in their work. You don’t want to establish metrics and milestones to “prosecute” shortcomings. You don’t want to tell your folks “OK, the organization has made a decision. Now get on board with it.”
If you establish that type of culture, you’ve set yourself up for some pretty bad things. You just robbed yourself of a diversity of input. You just set a very low bar for future performance and accountability. And, you’ve told people that you really don’t care about their years of expertise or their opinion. Are they going to trust you? Are they going to give it their best?
My philosophy is to let my people know that they are the valued eyes, ears, and boots on the ground and those metrics and milestones are for intelligence gathering. Are we on course? If not, how can we, together, put this back on track? What barriers can I, as the leader, help them break through?
Setting up a culture where people know and really believe that you are there to help them succeed frees them to seek out ways to do just that. Very quickly, they will bring you solutions, not problems. They will ask for your help when they need it, before making mistakes. They will propose new and challenging goals and recommend problem-solving mid-course corrections, not hold back on being innovative for fear of being labeled as not a team player.
Who do you admire as a good leader? Why?
Williams: I admire many organizations for their commitment to leadership. Companies like GE (General Electric Co.) and Intel come to mind. I have also been fortunate to have worked for some great leaders over the course of my federal career. What always struck me about these companies and other high performing organizations was, while they all have incredibly technical missions, a key factor in their success is their embracing strong leadership and management as essential, mission-enabling components that drive overall organizational excellence versus viewing management as a support function.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to improve their leadership skills?
Williams: Focus on developing the soft core competencies and skills. Leadership is about cultivating relationships, up, down and across an organization. Leadership is less about your technical skills. And, I think, a lot of leaders and managers, both long-term and new leaders, struggle to make this transition.
Embrace opportunities to learn different ways of organizing and conducting work. That 20-something-year-old working for you is most certainly going to go about their work process much differently than you might. Leadership is not about imposing your will or exact methods on others. The quickest way to stifle innovation is to tell someone to do it your way. Not to mention the negative effect this has on morale. You need to develop the capacity to be comfortable letting go of some control.
I’ve also found self-awareness activities to be very helpful. There are a number of good 360-degree assessment tools available that can help you to better understand how others view you as a leader and develop ways to model leadership behaviors that can help you be more successful within the unique organizational dynamics in which you must lead.
Finally, none of us is alone if we don’t want to be. I would advise all executives to find a mentor. While there is a lot of great leadership training available, I’ve found that continual learning from real-life situations is highly valuable. I’ve avoided stepping in many holes because someone else fell in first and was willing to tell me how they would do things differently given a second chance. We all are going to need help and advice at some point and mentors are a huge asset as sounding boards for tough leadership situations that face you.
What’s the most challenging part of being a leader?
Williams: I think that one of the hardest things about being a leader is being able to look at oneself in an objective manner. We all have limitations. Honestly recognizing these can be personally painful. However, understanding your own shortcomings can make you a better decision-maker when it comes time to acknowledge your own misjudgments and make a mid-course change or when to stay the course despite resistance to change.
Another challenging aspect of being a leader is the need to balance being tough on results but easy on people. One of the easiest things to do is to play the role of victim and blame others for poor or no results while one of the hardest things to do is solve problems. To be a good leader, you need to be up to the challenge of avoiding the former and doing the latter, all of the time.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, 6 a.m.-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere.
Tom also writes a weekly commentary. Subscribe to Federal Drive's daily audio interviews on iTunes or PodcastOne