DoT refocuses SES leaders to address shortcomings, improve skills

The Transportation Department is using 360-degree reviews and executive coaching to help members of the Senior Executive Service become better leaders. DoT is f...

The Transportation Department is trying to fix a leadership problem that has long plagued the government.

The agency no longer will promote employees to leadership positions who have put the time in or are experts in their field, but not in leadership.

Brian Crew, the associate director for human capital planning and solutions at the Transportation Department, said too often agencies don’t have good leaders in place, who also can lead well.

Crew, who spoke recently at a human capital management conference, said DoT is focusing on leadership accountability, specifically in the Senior Executive Service, and developing new hiring tools to ensure the leaders they do bring in are extraordinarily qualified.

Initially, DoT will focus on its current leaders to ensure they are set up for success.

“What we are looking to do is make sure leadership behaviors and performance are a higher percentage of how that leader is rated, not just looking at the results of the overall organization, but how they lead, how they manage their people and whether they are doing the right things in terms of diversity and inclusion, rewarding and recognizing so that they are actually held accountable for doing what that SES status is about leading,” Crew said. “So right now what we are looking at doing is trying to figure out what is the right percentage, right balance there. We know it needs to be higher. We are talking that over with leaders and HR experts.”

He said he expects to offer a proposal to DoT senior management in the next few months.

Survey shows shortcomings

Leadership and training were among DoT’s focus areas in light of recent Employee Viewpoint surveys and Best Places to Work surveys.

In the 2013 EVS, DoT scored a 60, which places it toward the top half of all agencies. Its score is up from 51 in 2008.

DoT also scored well in the 2013 Best Places to Work survey put out by the Partnership for Public Service. DoT ranked eighth among large agencies, but dropped 2.70 points from its 2012 score.

Part of the review process is for certain workers to identify they don’t want to move into management ranks because they are not well-suited for that type of job.

Crew, who also is the agency’s chief learning officer and chief of diversity, said this may mean getting current senior executives out of their positions and moved back to operational roles, where they were happier and more successful.

Part of the review process DoT is using includes a 360-degree review of the senior leaders. This way the SESer can get feedback from their supervisors, their employees and others who are at the same level in the organization and key stakeholders outside agency that the SESer works with regularly.

New tools for training

Crew said DoT tested out the 360 review process at several bureaus over the last two years, and now is ready to expand it across the entire department.

“Some people are excited to receive that kind of feedback and know how they are doing from the various stakeholders,” he said. “Others are a little afraid and that’s rightfully so because we haven’t done it with a lot of people for while. But definitely it will help them regardless, and as they get used to it, doing it year-after-year, they will see the value in it and it will help them get better.”

Along with revising the review process, Crew said DoT is improving its training processes.

He said DoT implemented a new executive coaching program for current SESers.

“It entails an expert in leadership actually working with the leader to help them improve their leadership in areas they are not strong, working with them to be better. If they come in and have a problem connecting with their employees, they can connect better. If they don’t communicate well with their employees, they can communicate better,” Crew said. “It really involves looking at the person and figuring out what about them is inhibiting their ability to lead and how they can improve that so they can be a better leader.”

Crew added the 360-degree review helps inform the leaders of their shortcomings, and they will receive help from an internal or external coach.

He said the coach will help them figure out why co-workers, supervisors and direct reports said the things they did in the review and offer suggestions for improvement. The coach also will follow the SESer around to meetings and provide input on how the manager could do better.

“Sometimes it will be a leader’s leader who says, ‘I want that person to get a coach. I think they have high potential.’ We don’t advocate it for poor performing leaders, but for that good-to-great jump,” he said.

Reconsidering candidate reviews

Crew said the leadership coaching program has been going on for two years, and reaction has been positive.

“We have had some leaders at the very top who have benefited quite greatly from it and insisted their managers below do it. Their managers usually want to because they’ve seen improvement in their leader,” he said. “Then it takes any stigma away from it and they recognize it’s not about somebody performing poorly, but someone getting better.”

The third piece to DoT’s initiative is built around hiring better workers. Crew said DoT is reviewing several different tools, both to bring on SES candidates and at all levels of the organization.

Crew said DoT is working with OPM to review existing tools, including situational judgment, performance or assessment tools.

“I think agencies struggle because the focus is always on getting the work done and the mission focused work. I think, historically, people have seen the people not as critical as they are in getting the work done,” he said. “We are how we get the work done and we forget that sometimes. I think it’s so obvious it gets ignored, so a slight increase in engagement is a huge decrease in your effectiveness. People forget that, and I don’t know that we in HR are vocal enough about the impact and we could do better in communicating our impact on the work.”


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