It is a generally accepted principle that an organization over time cannot be much better than its leadership. There may be temporary, heroic flashes on the front lines, but for sustainable, renewable performance, leadership is essential.
The reasoning is that effective leadership sets the stage for performance and alignment of activity. Without clear context, the narrative of what is supposed to happen, agreement on the values in use, what matters, what makes sense and all those other functions of leadership people are left to their own devices, and anything from confusion to chaos can result.
Now let’s switch gears for a moment.
When people talk about “performance management” in the federal government, what comes to mind? The press is full of stories of non-performing employees, bureaucrats who administer red tape, embrace process over results, and any other number of criticisms and dings. Everything from productivity, to work ethic to innovation all get called into question.
The idea seems to be that employees need their performance managed. That’s the assumption that I suspect many people make.
But there’s more to the picture than meets the eye.
How do we talk about performance management for leaders?
And since we now know that things like emotional intelligence, engagement, open communication, transparency, truth-telling and the ability to craft a compelling narrative around the “why” of work really, really matter in leadership, how do we regard or manage the performance of leaders who are more about high control, secrecy, command, politics, inner circles, vision of nothing except (in the private sector) making a fortune, or manipulation?
Of course, the mushrooming use of the 360-degree assessment is one foot in the door, but I suspect the whole notion that leaders are held accountable for their performance on the job – and in the process, not just in the results – is something of a surprise for many.
In this context, an article last year in Government Executive on how senior executives in the federal government evaluated political appointees was fascinating reading. The appointees earned a “C” average. More than 30% of the respondents gave the appointees a “D” or “F.”
The story reads: “Obama officials lack functional and agency-specific knowledge, according to survey respondents. Many believe appointees don’t understand human resources and procurement rules, saying they presume the ‘institution is there as an obstruction’ and attempt to ‘break organizations.’
“Appointees have ‘unbelievably poor communication with career employees,’ one respondent commented. Almost 40 percent of managers gave appointees Ds or Fs on collaboration and communication with their staffs. Some ‘have a divide-and-conquer strategy, and there are way too many industry fingers allowed in decision-making,’ a respondent noted. At another agency, a manager said the result has been ‘politicization of normal agency functions.’”
You can only wonder how the people the survey respondents were talking about feel about these results. In my experience, leaders hearing such criticisms usually go to defenses. This is all unconscious activity, but it’s quick, and often well-grooved. They will talk about how others don’t “get it,” they have complainers and whiners on their hands, the culture has too much deadwood, etc.
Which raises the question, whose accountability is that?
Moving beyond simplistic and naive power-based notions of “I set the rules” to acceptance of everyone’s performance really mattering – including at the top – is one of the dimensions of the new story of leadership emerging in our lifetimes. The disconnect between poor performance in leadership and accountability for that is just one more issue organizations are grappling with as they find their way into this new and very different story.