Friday, September 20, 2013
Uncle Dusty's Guide to Leadership
I recently graduate from an excellent leadership program called the Excellence in Government Fellowship with the Partnership for Public Service. This program brought together 200 current and future leaders from across the federal government from Departments of State, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education and many others including the White House and even the Architect of the Capitol's Office. This program was based on the Executive Core Qualifications for the Senior Executive Service, which I refer to as the muckety-shmucks of the federal system. As one of my career goals is to become one of these illustrious muckety-schmucks, being one of the ten VA employees selected to attend is a definite feather in my cap, so to speak.
We graduated last month and I submitted a speech in hopes to be selected to represent my classmates at the ceremony. While I was one of the top three finalists, another classmate from the Department of Education was chosen and her speech was truly inspiring. However, I thought it might be fun to share the words I would have spoken. Maybe they'll resonate with you. So herewith are my (not-quite) immortal words.
"Leadership, like education, should be focused on developing the next generation. It’s the whole “pay it forward” concept without the schmaltzy movie with the kid who saw dead people in the only other movie he made that anyone remembers.
My time in the Excellence in Government Fellowship, taught me a number of lessons, five of which I’ll focus on today. Customers are anyone who isn’t you. And your focus should be on the customer; however, you have to first know who you are in order to be effective. This reflection will force you to be honest with yourself about who you are and why you think the way you do. The best leaders are aware of their limitations and work to strengthen them by focusing on what they do well and trying to emulate their successes. Reading the “Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry” was an important step in remembering to focus on the positives, learn from your successes and to use those lessons to address your failures or “areas" of "improvement” (with actual air quotes).
I have a passion for teaching, but not in a traditional setting. One of the ways I am able to transfer training from short to long term memory is to immediately teach those lessons to my managers and other staff upon my return from each session. The one group of people for whom I can easily translate each principle to specific work should be the staff in my own department. And this introduces staff at all levels to principles and philosophies that they otherwise might not have access. To withhold leadership training until someone is placed into a leadership position is not setting those people up for success. Everyone can benefit from leadership training, if for no other reason than to have a frame of reference for their leader’s expectations.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but an important lesson was one I received long ago from my mother and most of my elementary and high school teachers; to “hush” every now and then and actually listen to those within your sphere of influence. If you’re always talking, Dustin Terryll, how are you going to know what people think?
Combining listening with authenticity is integral to success. You can’t simply understand leadership principles but you must live them every day. I know I am not Abraham Lincoln (I am far too stylish to wear that whole ‘beard with no moustache’ thing); however, I can take his lessons and merge them with my leadership style and put them to work every day. And these are ideals that are still relevant today. Lincoln’s “Circulating among the troops”? It’s the same principle as a Lean’s Gemba Walks, just without the Toyotas. Fair warning, these interactions with your front-line staff will take a thick skin. Letting your employees offer candid feedback, without fear of reprisal, makes sense. Where do you think you should get ideas on how to improve a process if not from those who actually use the process every day? If you function in a vacuum, you function alone. If you aren’t sure you’re in a vacuum, you probably are.
I know opening yourself up to scrutiny takes courage but you should never be afraid to make a mistake. No one is perfect but Jesus and he doesn’t work for the federal government, y’all. Can I get an ‘Amen’? Empowerment comes from employees feeling supported in taking calculated risks. One way to foster that environment is to be honest about your struggles, failures and triumphs. This way, your employees know that you don’t think you’re perfect and you don’t expect them to be either. If we stopped trying to be perfect, we could all focus on being awesome! And empowering your employees is the key to success. Not to get all Dilbert cartoony, but if you have to tell your employees they are empowered, they’re not.
The final lesson is one I learned from my esteemed coach, Feli Sola-Carter. She showed me that to be a great leader you have to believe you have a message to be heard; a vision to be shared; a style to be copied…to a point. Not everyone can pull off pastel chinos, am I right? Followers are the reason for leading. If you don’t think you and your vision are admirable, why should anyone follow you?
I applied to EIG to become a more thoughtful leader, to be a better support system for those with whom I interact. I tell my staff that I don’t come to work focused on customers. I come to work focused on my staff and they, in turn, focus on the customer. The significance of the Excellence in Government Fellowship is it allowed me to grow as a leader by arming me with an exceptional set of tools. If I use every available tool to create an environment where my staff have everything they need to succeed (space, equipment, training, empowerment), our customers, and in my case, our nation’s Veterans, receive all that they deserve."
And that is all I'm saying.