Remaining effective through telework

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Communication and collaboration might be the hardest things about teleworking. That and the fact that the good ones can overwork or work too long, and that’s unfair to them and the agency. One of the government’s long-serving chief information officers has some practical advice to effectiveness in times like these. Export-Import Bank CIO Howard Spira joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with more.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Spira, good to have you on.

Howard Spira: Hi, thank you, Tom. Good to be here with you.

Tom Temin: And let’s start with some of your experience. You were a CIO on 9/11. And then you were of CIO during the crash of 08. Let’s go back to 9/11. What did you learn back then?

Howard Spira: I was based out of Connecticut, but we were part of the New York metro area. All I can say is communication, communication, communication, and knowing who your people are. Obviously, we, we had plans, but the most challenging circumstances are the ones that you maybe didn’t plan for and communicating, knowing how to find your key people and how to rally them are key. And I think the other thing that I would say is leadership is key. What are the key principles that you’re trying to get out there? And how do you rally that team?

Tom Temin: And in 9/11 I mean, what happened? There were buildings collapsing nearby where you had people, correct?

Howard Spira: Yes, we had buildings that were at least at the time on fire and subsequently collapsed where we had where we had staff. It was also a major telecommunications center. When the building collapsed, I think every beeper and network monitor basically went blank because we became disconnected.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so you’ve had some experience in this idea of continuity of operations. And if you fast forward to this one, the buildings aren’t collapsing, but the people are all scattered and what is your best advice for a CIO someone in leadership position someone at the SES level to deal with this?

Howard Spira: Well, I think from a leadership perspective, probably the most important thing to remember his tone at the top, and that the leader through their words and their actions are going to set the tone and the key principles that people are going to be paying attention to. So I think for leaders, it’s really about speaking clearly, that it’s not only the mission, but people matter. And it’s also about setting clear norms and consistent behavior and setting the tempo for communication. I think it’s very important that leaders also practice what they preach and never forget the impact of leadership voices, which are louder than you often realize.

Tom Temin: And what about who to communicate with? I mean, sometimes I think leaders may make the mistake of they only communicate with the immediate people under them and everyone else is wondering, what’s going on?

Howard Spira: Yeah, well, this is a time for leaders to to lead. They need to speak broadly because they need to create that transparency and consistency of message not only to their lieutenants but through the entire organization, and they need to do that quickly. So, at EXIM, our chairman Kimberly agreed was out in front of the whole organization, in addition to a consistent tempo of communication to her direct reports and her senior executive team.

Tom Temin: And then there’s people at the middle levels here that are in between the top leadership but they are supervising lots of people. What’s their best role in times like this?

Howard Spira: Sure. This is a very challenging place to be because you’re not necessarily in the room where policy is being made. And you’re sort of squeezed between policy being made and often very anxious staff that want answers. So first of all, let me let me say being a supervisor in times like this is a very challenging place to be, but I think probably the most important thing is as that tone from the top is set from the executive, you also need to translate that into what it means for your business. Or your area. And so you need to have a candid discussion as a group leader, about how you begin to translate those broad principles into what does it mean for your group? I think the other thing, and I would specifically, say this to supervisors, when I say supervisor, I mean someone who has direct reports and how they interact with with their direct reports, is you need to talk to each member of your team as an individual, because particularly in this pandemic, how it’s impacting each individual is varied. People have different situations. Some people have young children, some people have older parents that they’re responsible for at home. So the variety that I’ve seen with respect to my staff and what they’re dealing with, and the kind of attention that they need to pay to their personal life is very, very good. And so you have to have an individual conversation with each one to kind of understand what’s happening with them, what’s their capacity, and what’s their availability that they can make available back for the mission.

Tom Temin: You have also written an essay at Federal News Network that sometimes the staff people can get overzealous and burn themselves out or work around the clock. And this is not really a good idea, either, is it?

Howard Spira: No, it’s, no, it’s not. Because I think the first thing you have to do in order to be able to sustain yourself through something like this is you have to maintain your health, you have to maintain your energy and you need to be attentive to significant obligations that they probably have at home, whether it’s to yourself to family members, to relatives, that’s important too.

Tom Temin: And it’s probably not a good idea to hide whatever situation you might be having. You’re urging people to be candid about where they are.

Howard Spira: Yeah, I think it’s important to be candid, and you can actually be candid and also maintain privacy, because I know that some people get uncomfortable talking about these things. So I think the the important thing is you just need to be candid about what you’re capable of doing. And when you’re capable of doing it, supervisors don’t have crystal balls. So they don’t know if you’re homeschooling or if you’ve got some other obligation maybe to an aging parent that they don’t know about. And so, we’ve introduced a lot of flexibilities to to try to keep the federal workforce as employed as possible, and to allow people to work through all of these challenging situations. So people need to share what their challenging situation is so that supervisors can help them and the agency work through it.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the signs that you monitor to see if things are going well or that might pop up if things are not going as well as they should?

Howard Spira: Sure. Well, at EXIM, we monitor it through three main vehicles. First of all, we have a lot of telemetry about what’s happening on our network and what’s happening with our application. So we’ve got sort of a constant flow of what our utilization rates on on networks and who’s using, what kind of application and what percent of the workforce that represents. And so that’s one place we can get a clue about stuff happening. The other thing is, ever since we’ve had the pandemic, we check in every day and say, what’s happening on the help desk, which is our central point where people will call if they’re having some kind of it issue. But probably most importantly, we have two one hour meetings a day, one focused on sort of internal operations with a number of the operationally oriented leadership, and then another one that’s focused on our customers. And through those forums, we also are able to have face to face, albeit it’s virtual, feedback of how things are going and we take time to actually ask ourselves, let’s synthesize the telemetry, let’s synthesize the help desk calls, and let’s synthesize the feedback that we’re getting at these meetings with other leaders to map out a strategy and try to be ahead of things.

Tom Temin: And one final question, what about contractors that are often heavily in deeply into the support of agency IT operations?

Howard Spira: Sure, I think that’s a great question. If they’re on prem, they’re our responsibility for their safety. And basically, we’ve done a tremendous amount of outreach to our on prem contract workforce, making sure that we’re in contact not only with the program manager, but oftentimes the executive and talking about what we’re doing, also asking them for feedback about what if anything they’re hearing from their on prem contractors about how it’s working, and if we’re meeting their needs. And then asking them to also echo some of the key messages that we have. So our outreach to our procurement community is also very extensive.

Tom Temin: Howard Spira is CIO of the Export Import Bank. Thanks so much for joining me.

Howard Spira: Thank you, Tom.