In My Experience: How to Survive and Thrive During Leadership Change
By Karen Freeman, former SES and Deputy CIO at the IRS & current Wheelhouse Group Advisor
So, a new leader is coming into your organization. And with that new leader, a new perspective on your work. We as federal careerists are no stranger to this. While we expect leadership turnover during a new administration, if you work for the federal government long enough, this will happen regularly throughout your career. Personally, I experienced 10 top leadership changes during my tenure in the Senior Executive Service (SES). As the Deputy Chief Information Officer (DCIO) at the IRS, I had to balance the delivery of ongoing mandated services and the planning, development, and execution of changing strategic initiatives that aligned with the vision of new leaders.
Missions are always broad, but each new leader will find their own way to deliver on it – which can be anxiety-making. Today, I will share my thoughts on how to support your programs and goals in the seemingly constant leadership turnover, how to ensure your longevity and relevance during an administration’s shifting priorities, and how to find success in times of change.
Supporting programs and goals during leadership churn: know your leader, know your stuff
First things first – who is the new leader? What is her professional background? How familiar is she with the agency’s mission and programs? Does she have a specific point-of-view about the responsibility of government and the agency? Why was she chosen? Is she an innovator or disrupter, a specialist in business acumen, a productivity and efficiency expert, or all the above?
Answering these questions will be critical to supporting your programs and aligning them with the vision of the new leader. So, do your research– quick and easy internet searches, review of speeches and testimonies, and conversations with others more familiar with the leader and her management philosophy, work style and approach to problem solving. Through this discovery, you will begin to see the outlines of this person. You will also gain more understanding and start to fill in the picture as you start to engage more closely with the new leader.
Next up: Every new leader needs to establish a team of trusted advisors. So, you want to demonstrate your value and build trust by going strong on credibility, reliability, and integrity. Communicate openly, honestly, and factually about your program area. Explain the strategies, successes, weaknesses, and impacts, both internal and external, of the programs. Be prepared to represent your program area in a way that connects to the leader’s vision. Are you providing the right details? Do you need to look at the program from a new angle? If the program is not fully supported, do you need to re-negotiate aspects of the program to better align with the new vision? Or do you need to take leadership of sunsetting a program that is no longer a priority in meeting the agency’s strategic goals? In any case, your job is to provide the expertise on your programs and support the new leader in proceeding in the requisite direction.
Maintaining relevance during shifting priorities: be responsive, flexible
When a priority shifts, how you begin to activate the change is on full display. Now that you and your new leader are on the same page, talk about it! Talk to your team about why the change is necessary and what it means to them. Listen to your team to gain an understanding of their level of motivation and dedication. Recognize that employees take pride in their work and are often attached to the outcome. So, acknowledge and accept that there may be strong feelings about moving away from something that the team created. Allow for what I call a “burning-in” period: time for information and emotion to settle. Give your team time to consider and craft ways to respond that address and effectively meet the new or changed requirement.
At first what appears to be a simple request, may require immense thought, and could employ incredibly complex solutions. As the Associate CIO, I remember being given a task that made my team furious. How could we possibly take on an initiative to reduce our technical staffing ratios and still delivery everything on our plate on time? Couldn’t this wait to be addressed after our peak deliverable period? Apparently, not. After the burning-in period, however, we got to work figuring out how to reduce of technical staffing ratios to match the industry standard.
Through flexibility, diverse thought, and creative team problem solving the team was able to respond. Ultimately, we determined that our existing staffing paradigm was too generalized and did not allow for the nuances or complexities that existed in our workplace. So, we scrapped it and built something new from the ground up that met the needs of the team and fulfilled the leadership requirement. What seemed impossible was made possible by giving the team space for their emotional reactions and creative license so they could focus on finding a good solution. My advice is to always be patient with people, but impatient with lack of results.
Personal success in times of change: know yourself, trust your team
As I mentioned earlier, when a leader joins an agency, he brings a different background and perspective and establishes new visions and strategies, but that does not change the fundamental mission of the agency. As you encounter strong leadership (or leaders with strong opinions), you may find it useful to examine your own thoughts or beliefs about what is happening. Do you know who you are and how you fit into the organization? Do you understand what your role and contributions will be? Those questions deserve deep thought as the answers will light your career path.
During times of change or uncertainty, exploring mentors who can help you navigate the shifting sands or professional coaching opportunities are also worthwhile pursuits. While the availability of in-house mentorship programs may ebb and flow depending on agency resources, you can also use tried and true networking with more senior-level managers or colleagues to provide guidance and support.
As your new leadership arrives with their own ideas, remember leadership directs actions, but careerists drive the mission on a daily basis. Ask yourself “How will I continue to be a driver?” People are your greatest resource. Nothing gets done except through people! Your team has a wealth of knowledge about the agency programs and systems. They know what is working and what is not. They know where the “skeletons” are hidden. They hear the request and/or complaints from partners, stakeholders, and customers. They know what needs to be done to improve the programs, if only that had the authority to do it. Do not think you need to have all the answers. Engage your team in the tough questions and you will be amazed by what you learn and how well they respond.