5 skills all leaders need in times of transition
8 June 2021
Leadership teams have dealt with a huge amount of change over the last year. But this constant change is par for the course.
Employees regularly face new directives and priorities from management. Leadership teams are then tasked with ensuring operations continue smoothly — which often means retaining mission-critical employees despite all the change.
According to Michèle Flournoy, who served as the Undersecretary of Defense For Policy from 2009 to 2012 under President Obama and co-led President Obama's transition team at the Defense Department, the best leaders set themselves apart with a people-first approach.
“There are too many people who come in and want to do just the policy part of the job, and don't understand that their ability to do that well depends on how they lead and manage the people in the organization,” she said, speaking at a recent webinar as part of the Leadership in Transition series from the Partnership for Public Service. “You're not going to get to peak performance unless you invest in your people.”
When Flournoy took over the Defense Department transition, she was inheriting about 1,000 employees across three agencies, without the support of other team members who still needed to undergo political confirmation. She quickly realized that she needed to engage with all kinds of people and functions across the organization. “I wanted to understand what the experience was really like for them,” she said.
1) Be sure to listen
It's been said that listening is the highest form of respect. While managing her transition, Flournoy established listening tours with employees at all levels.
“I really tried to understand where the organization was. Where was it strong? Where was it weak? What was morale like?" she said.
When you’re willing to listen, people become more candid about the things that they're hoping will change. Flournoy started hearing feedback like: "We're exhausted," "No one's gotten any training or professional development for as long as we can remember," "We spend a lot of our time reformatting the same material for different people." Listening offers people a space that feels safe to provide constructive criticism.
2) Act on feedback
In addition to simply listening, people need to know they’ve been heard. While Flournoy believes leadership doesn’t need to respond to every comment, they need to be seen as being responsive to the organization. If they don't, employees won’t make their voices heard. Flournoy wasn’t afraid to have some fun, either, to make sure her teams knew she was following through.
"We announced a contest for the top 10 things that were wasting our time that we should stop doing right away. We got hundreds of nominations,” she said. “Just by going through them at a very high level of scrutiny, I was able to take several dozen and say, we're not going to do this anymore, we're going to be smarter with our time. And that was a big morale boost in the organization.”
It showed that she asked for feedback, heard her employees and put a plan into action.
3) Invest in people
From her listening tour, Flournoy found issues with low morale and performance that she knew needed to be addressed before any big-picture policy goals had a chance of successful implementation.
One change she made was to institute predictable time off. For employees often working 12 or 14 hour days, it was important to have dedicated, consistent periods of time off to be able to be with family or have time to exercise, for example.
“It was a huge morale boost, and it made the team closer because people are sharing what’s important to them,” Flournoy said. “It actually improved cohesion and performance.”
There’s risk in avoiding investment in human capital beyond just getting subpar work from employees:
“You'll probably have people vote with their feet,” Flournoy said. “Usually the best people leave the fastest because they have other options.”
4) There’s no such thing as overcommunication
Effective government leaders are strong, flexible and concise communicators. And while some people may prefer to hear a message in a town hall, others may prefer a small group setting where they can ask questions.
“A lot of times, you might feel like you’ve said the same thing 10,000 times,” Flournoy said. “But the 10,001st time that you say something, it can click for someone. Someone will say, ‘I've never heard that before.’” And ultimately, communication bleeds into action. “I think at the end of the day, everybody knew we were doing a human capital strategy and what it was about because even if they didn't hear about it, they started to feel it. They started to actually experience things differently at work,” Flournoy said.
5) Champion change with soft skills
One of the best ways organizations can lead through change is to position managers with the training they need to improve their soft skills. Mangers with great soft skills motivate and engage their people more effectively — like how they can intuit the right incentives to motivate employees.
Flournoy points to one department manager that selected a “best memo of the week” to share as a way for employees to gain recognition.
“A lot of it was just encouraging people to be creative and do what's going to work in your office,” she said. Managers can also take the pulse of teams to surface any issues that might come up. “I did a lot of management by walking around,” Flournoy explained. “I did what I call core sampling, which is to talk to a bunch of admin people or office directors just to find out how things were going from day to day.”
Maintaining leadership momentum beyond transition
Building a truly resilient culture needs everyone’s buy-in. Through active listening, acting on feedback and investing in people, leaders should have the goal of creating a space for all people to participate fully. This can help create an environment where employees at all levels can contribute not just to the work itself, but to the entire team’s wellbeing.
“I could have gone into a room by myself and written, here are my top five priorities for my time in office, and here's how I'm going to achieve them, and here's my strategy, and then handed in this paper,” Flournoy says. “But I knew that I was going to get a much better product, all kinds of new ideas and challenges, better substance, but also, much more ownership by the organization and the team if I brought other people into the process.”
Flournoy has seen the impact of this approach over the course of her career and shared one example from her time in the Obama administration.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was reviewing a memo her team had provided on important topics to be shared with the President.
“He put the memo down and said, ‘Did you fire everyone in this office and hire a new group of people?’ And I said no and asked him why he thought that,” Flournoy recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t believe this memo, which is superb, came from the same office where I was unhappy with the quality of work four months ago. What happened?’ I told him, ‘We put some good leaders in there and we started investing in the people.’ It’s like watering flowers in the desert: They just bloom.”