Leader Development is Not a Luxury

Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller had a story on April 2 with the headline “Better trained supervisors key to improving morale.” Jason reported on WFED’s CHCO survey and an interview Francis Rose conducted with NASA CHCO Jeri Buchholz. The CHCO survey and Jeri stressed the need for leader development as a means of improving employee morale. I believe Jeri and my former CHCO colleagues are spot on. Absent significant investment in developing the leadership abilities of supervisors, the Federal government is going to have morale and performance issues for years to come.

I have heard comments from folks who say the emphasis on leader development and the role of leaders in driving Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) results is an indictment of supervisors. Nothing could be further from the truth. If it is an indictment of anything, it is the culture that says investing in supervisor training is a waste of time and money. That culture has resulted in budget cuts for training programs, a lack of emphasis on developing the so-called “soft skills” of leadership, and a belief that mission-related training is always more valuable than leader development.  Such beliefs harm agencies terribly. Here is why.

Supervisors drive culture and morale. Other than demographic questions, the FEVS has 84 questions. Of those, 65 are under the control of supervisors and managers. Here is are the 2013 FEVS Questions with the 65 highlighted. So why not blame the supervisors? Easy – it is generally not their fault. For the most part, people are selected for supervisory jobs based upon their technical skills. If we are filling a basket weaver supervisor, we generally look at the basket weavers and pick the one the selecting official believes is the best basket weaver. In many cases there is little real consideration, and certainly no structured assessment, of that person’s leadership abilities. Once they are selected, we put them into a job that requires a completely different skill set from basket weaving and give them little, if any, real training to develop that new skill set. Many agencies send supervisors to a class that is called supervisory training, but it is really just training supervisors on the basics of writing job descriptions, using the rating system, and other basic HR-related skills. The “soft skills” are notably absent in many of these programs. So – we select people who are very good at what they do, but not at what we are selecting them for, do little to develop them, and then blame them for our problems. It seems that is grossly unfair to the supervisors and the people they supervise.

It isn’t that there is no interest by supervisors in real training. At the Defense Logistics Agency, we implemented a comprehensive program for newly selected supervisors. It was so successful, we started getting complaints from people who had been in supervisory jobs prior to the program’s start asking why they could not have the same training. It was clear these folks wanted to do a good job. They wanted the training. Our response was to create a “retrofit” program to give them similar training.

If there is clearly a demand and a need, why does real leader development not happen? For many agencies, it is because leader development is not treated as a budget priority. With shrinking budgets and everyone competing for a diminishing pot of dollars, tradeoffs have to be made. Training has not traditionally been viewed as one of the priorities, and leader development has drawn the short straw when the limited training dollars are allocated. There is often a mistaken belief that it would appear selfish for agency leadership to devote dollars to training supervisors when their employees are not getting the training they need. I believe that view, while it is based on the best of intentions, actually harms the very employees it is trying to protect. If employee views are so dramatically shaped by the quality of supervisors as shown by the FEVS, investing in leaders is investing in employees. In addition to the benefits for employees, there is also a benefit to customers of the agency. At DLA, we conducted both employee and customer surveys. We found a very strong correlation between our employees’ views and how our customers rated the quality of support they got from DLA. On some questions, such as “I have the information I need to do my job,” the correlation coefficient was +.90 or better. It was clear that how we treated our employees was directly related to how our customers perceived the service they got from DLA.

With supervisory skills being so directly related to the FEVS results, and employee perceptions being so directly related to customer outcomes, it is clear that developing leaders is not a luxury. It is not a selfish use of precious resources for supervisors and managers’ own benefit. It can and will drive agency results and make the government a better employer. That makes it a necessity.

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