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Developing a New Generation of Public-Agency Leaders

Florida's program teaches critical skills to rank-and-file employees who never planned to be managers.

November 6, 2003
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Workforce Planning

As a boy, David Herbster was surrounded by high-achieving honchos. His grandfather was president and chairman of the Coca-Cola Co. His father was a senior vice president of Citibank (now known as Citicorp) and then a vice president of Cornell University.

    Still, Herbster never gave much thought to leadership, much less what kind of leader he might want to be someday. He wanted to zoom around in boats, cleaning up rivers and lakes. In 1985, he was delighted to land a job sampling water for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and, as luck would have it, he kept getting promoted. This year, at age 44, he is a wetlands district administrator who supervises 23 employees. While he is an experienced problem-solver, Herbster realized that he wasn’t prepared to handle the personnel problems of an instant staff. And he hadn’t received any counsel on how to direct, discipline or inspire his staff in their mission to protect Florida’s waterways and lakes while, at the same time, responding sensibly to residents and businesses seeking permits to build docks or dig ponds.

    While Herbster was climbing out of the swamps and into the central district office in Orlando, two training mavens in the state’s Department of Financial Services, Charles Sawyer and Jim McCloy, were seeking ways to nurture a badly needed new generation of leaders in state government. Baby boomers are approaching retirement. Out of 124,143 employees in 30 Florida state agencies, about 20,000 are eligible to retire within the next 10 years.

    After reviewing different leadership-training programs, the finance department spent $500,000 for an AchieveGlobal curriculum that 700 employees will study over the next five years. Last summer a pilot group of 24 employees from 12 different agencies who will attend nine two-day training sessions over an 11-month period. The state purchased 23 modules, or units, that address issues such as team building, proactive listening and performance problems. Sawyer and McCloy handcrafted two additional custom modules entitled "Finding and Hiring the Right People" and "How to Prepare a Budget for the State."

    Many argue that pumping up supervisory skills is even more necessary in government than in the private sector. In private industry, most managers have MBAs and formal management training, whereas many state workers are careerists in a particular field (accountants, case workers, enforcement officers) who wend their way up the ranks with no official instruction on how to achieve goals, motivate staff, prepare budgets and maximize anyone’s potential. Not only are state workers paid less than those in the private sector, but their bosses are also usually prohibited from rewarding them with cash bonuses, salary increases or other perks. That means that when a boss wants to recognize someone for a job well done, the only tangible way to do so may be a promotion. In addition to the paltry paychecks and a certain lack of respect, public servants have been losing the job security that made government work so attractive.

    Whether the baby-boomer exodus will be as devastating as some predict is as uncertain as the future of telecommuting. Demographics suggest a 30 percent turnover in the next decade, but some, such as Jack Phillips, founder of the Jack Phillips Center for Research in Birmingham, Alabama, a division of FranklinCovey, doubt that the figure will be so high. "The baby boomers may not retire as quickly as we think," he notes, adding that they may stay in the workforce to shore up savings for retirement and retain employer-sponsored health benefits.

    McCloy, the director of training at Florida’s Department of Financial Services, is convinced that a crisis looms. In surveying three major state agencies, he found that 30 percent of the mid- to senior-level managers would be eligible to retire within five years. Throughout the Achieve Global curriculum, there are six principles that run like threads: focus on the situation (instead of the people in it), maintain confidence and self-esteem in others, nurture constructive relationships, take the initiative to make things better, lead by example, and think beyond the moment. Agency heads nominate the most promising staff performers for course participation. Nominees are asked to sign a form saying that they intend to remain a Florida state employee for the foreseeable future.

    "The whole process is designed to accelerate the replacement of the baby boomers," says Sawyer, manager of the Florida Leadership Succession Training Program. "Employers have to promote people more rapidly. What used to take 20 years, you now need in 5 or 10."

    While Herbster has undergone only one day-long orientation session and two days of classes per month, he says that the course has been a revelation. When three employees were enmeshed in a conflict over accountability and paperwork, Herbster used his "acknowledge and navigate" tips to call a meeting, discuss the problem and go over their position descriptions. He was happy to find out that the problem wasn’t personality conflicts, but confusion over job functions. "They had all been stepping on each other’s toes, and eliminating the cross functions was a simple thing to solve."

    Sawyer has already polled participants for feedback and found that "the higher the level of the manager, the more likely they are to say, ‘We know this stuff.’ The lower-level people say, ‘This is the greatest program I’ve seen on planet Earth.’ " But everyone, Sawyer says, appreciates the small groups, in which they discuss problems and discover that other managers struggle with the same stresses. "Delegation is a really big one," Sawyer says. "Everyone is swamped and asked to do more with less. They want to know how to prioritize what is critical."

    The small groups, which let people think out loud without supervisors sitting in judgement, have been so helpful that Sawyer is evincing some leadership himself. He is tentatively planning periodic brown-bag lunches for interested managers to network, brainstorm and help each other. "It’s not a mandate, but it’s up there on my mental shelf. It wouldn’t require much to do it."

Workforce Management, November 2003, pp. 79-80 -- Subscribe Now!

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