Education offers employees the chance to walk in their managers’ shoes

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The Education Department is giving prospective managers a chance to walk in their supervisor’s shoes before buying them. A program called “A Day in the Life” lets GS-14 and 15 employees see what it’s like to be a manager by shadowing a current one over a few days.

Quay Crowner, the Education Department’s acting deputy chief administration officer and human resources director, said the “A Day in the Life” program is part of a broader employee engagement effort going on across the department.

“We are ramping up our efforts this year to take better care of our employees,” Crowner said Tuesday during a panel discussion at the Human Capital Management Government Training Event sponsored by Worldwide Business Research in Alexandria, Virginia. “We are putting together a more structured approach to sharing information with our employees, working with our IT folks to ensure our employees can telework more easily, and our HR office is moving from a transaction-based approach to a front-end engagement approach where we post fewer documents, and do more proactive communications and friendly reminders of what’s available to our employees.”

Crowner and several other panel members highlighted the increased governmentwide emphasis on employee engagement, training and leadership development.

One major reason for this focus is the results of the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The survey showed employee engagement dropped governmentwide to 63 percent, down from 67 percent in 2011 and 64 percent in 2013. Additionally, EVS results showed 50 percent say their training needs are met, and employees scored supervisor and leadership communication and collaboration on the low end of the scale.

The Office of Personnel Management also is giving agencies more data about the state of their workforce, letting them take more directed actions to solve problems.

At Education, for instance, since 2010, the overall scores for leadership and management have inched up to 61 from 59, while talent management increased to 59 in 2014 from 54 in 2010.

Crowner said part of the reason for the slow, but steady satisfaction increase in both leadership and talent management comes from programs such as “A Day in the Life.”

“We’ve done it for a couple of years. It’s been primarily in our Federal Student Aid organization. The last few years we’ve probably sent about 50 employees through ‘A Day in the Life,'” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s managed by our Workforce Development Training Program Office. Essentially, what we do is establish some goals on the front end. What is it we want individuals to walk away with? We really want them to walk away with the full experience — as much as they can get in a few days — of what it really means to be a supervisor. It’s not just the pretty picture, the possibility of an increase of pay or a larger cubicle or office, but it really is about some of the challenges and issues that they focus on in not only dealing with work, but supervising and managing employees, working with other peers in the leadership ranks, possibly some of the either political, legislative or regulatory issues that come up as well.”

Pilot’s impact is evident

Typically, employees will shadow a manager that is not their own for a few days so they can see many of the facets of the job.

“We really want to take the employee away from that day-to-day relationship and focus on other parts of the organization to broaden their experience,” Crowner said. “We are building and supporting our current resources. It’s an investment.”

While a “Day in the Life” still is in the pilot stage, she said the positive impact is clear.

“The first few sessions that we sent employees through the feedback was good in that they got exposure that they’d never gotten before. As with most federal agencies, a lot of the organizations are stovepiped and you don’t have an opportunity to gain awareness of what’s going on across the organization so awareness alone was good,” Crowner said.

“However, employees still struggled a little bit to figure out what do they do with this at the end of this experience. So some of the tweaking has been that follow-on support discussions, career planning that we can provide the employee.”

Crowner said Education doesn’t have plans to expand the program across the department quite yet. Instead, she said the agency wants to gather lessons learned and make improvements to the initiative.

She said the initial idea comes from an industry best practice, but Education tweaked the concept a bit to meet its needs.

“We’ve taken a lot of time to look at what works in the private sector and not necessarily just move things over, but really do some assessment and evaluation about whether some of those practices could be effective in government,” Crowner said. “We actually took the time to stop and assess, and not just focus on building something new, but doing some deeper benchmarking than we’ve ever done before.”

Leadership training starts sooner

Along with the “Day in the Life” program, Education is helping to identify potential up-and-coming leaders through a second initiative, called the Pathways to Leadership.

Crowner said Pathways to Leadership is a one-year long program open to all agency employees at the GS-11, 12 or 13 levels.

She said employees are selected and spend a year working on various projects and programs to learn management techniques and styles.

“It’s individuals who are at the point where they are ready to decide if, in fact, they want to move into leadership positions,” Crowner said. “I think once we have employees in leadership positions and we focus on training and development, it’s good and needed. But it really has to start before they move into leadership positions.”

But for those employees who decide management or supervisory roles are not for them, Education is trying to ensure a place for them too.

Crowner said Education developed senior technical positions so these employees aren’t left out of potential salary increases or advanced non-managerial responsibilities.

“I think it really was just having several folks sit down and have some discussions about what is working and what isn’t working,” she said. “Those several people are not just a group of people who sit around the table and have a discussion, but it really is about the hiring managers, who are we getting into place in these positions and are they working out? It’s really about looking at the performance data and the individuals we are selecting in these positions are they being successful? It’s really about looking at the employee feedback and how employees feel about their supervisors and managers. It was creating an organizational structure that allowed for that type of success and movement.”

Crowner said the opportunity to advance without having to move into a management role has been a success both for the agency and for the employee. She said the employee is happy so they likely are more productive, and Education doesn’t lose that institutional knowledge and technical expertise.

In addition to the “Day in the Life,” Pathways to Leadership and the creation of the senior technical non-managerial positions, Education created employee advisory councils or affinity groups to recommend ways to improve the agency’s business processes.

Crowner said all of these efforts are part of the ongoing effort to improve employee engagement.

“We have several councils that we make sure are often connected, share thoughts and ideas, and also action plans occasionally in order to make sure we are not stovepiped even from the council perspective, but also more importantly that we get results,” she said. “It’s really about communication and setting the expectations up front that not every recommendation will get implemented. We do owe those individuals a status of what is going to happen, if anything, and a little bit of feedback. There are things that can be implemented at the local level. You don’t necessarily have to shoot it up to leadership in order to put it in place.”

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