Column: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People … Federal-style

The success of our agencies’ mission requires the close cooperation of program management staff in headquarters and program execution staff in the field. Communications between these entities is rarely ideal and often strained for a variety of reasons. Improving these relationships not only enables better mission performance, but creates an environment in which employees can mature and thrive.

So, what are the elements of effective communications necessary to be successful in today’s environment? To be sure, this question has been extensively explored by corporate executives and management researchers for years. While we can’t do justice to the vast body of material on the subject of this article, I explore the headquarters and field staff relationship and how to improve communications and create high-performance mission teams through the contemporary lens of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Understand the Mission.
“Begin with the end in mind” provides the context for the mission federal employees are collectively trying to achieve through our independent actions. The most basic and essential obligation of employees is to understand their jobs in the context of the agency’s mission. A shared understanding of the mission is the lynchpin linking the program policy issues facing headquarters employees with the execution issues facing field employees. While reading the agency’s mission statement is a start, socializing that mission amongst team members is critical to developing a common understanding of the mission and the actions needed to achieve it. A shared understanding of mission by all is the unifying framework in which headquarters policy and field execution challenges can be assessed and strategies developed to address them.

Listen to Each Other.
“Seek first to understand, and then to be understood” is the cardinal rule of relationships. Employing this maxim in our daily business creates the effective communications and collaborative relationships necessary to navigate the stormiest seas safely. Ignoring it, we sail at our peril; alone and vulnerable to the slightest of upsets. Successfully navigating seas both calm and turbulent-and sometimes unchartered-requires headquarters and field-based employees to have a deep understanding of all program policy and execution challenges each other face in their day-to-day activities. This deep understanding is foundational to the open-mindedness, alignment, and trust required for employees to interact genuinely and respectfully together as a team, indeed to “synergize.” In the complex and dynamic environment in which Washington and field employees operate, the synergy between program policy and field execution staff is critical to the agency’s success.


Learn About All the Agency’s Constituents.
“Put first things first” helps us determine the urgency and importance of the multitude of issues we are faced with daily. It is a fact that headquarters and field employees’ day-to-day priorities are driven by different constituents. As a young manager in the field, I frequently wondered about the constant barrage of “urgent” requests for information emanating from my headquarters colleagues. To me, not only were they not urgent, they seemed unimportant to the operational issues for which I was responsible. For their part, my headquarters colleagues wondered about the “urgent” requests for action on operational issues emanating from the field that had little to do with corporate management. Clearly, we did not share the same sense of urgency or importance when it came to addressing each others’ constituents. Moreover, these differences are often the source of considerable friction between the headquarters and field employees.

What accounts for this difference? My answer came as a result of being detailed to Washington repeatedly over the course of a few years. Working closely with my agency’s headquarters executive team, I came to more fully understand the dynamic relationship between executive agencies and policy and oversight entities such as Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office. Likewise, through me and the assignments of headquarters staff to the field, my Washington colleagues came to more fully understand the relationship between the field, the agency’s ultimate customers: state and local political entities, public and private business and the public at large.

Of course these differences are obvious to me now. They were not, however, obvious at all as a young staffer with limited experience. The more thoroughly headquarters and field staff learn about all agency constituents and the more effectively this knowledge is communicated vertically through the team, the more effective we will be in developing the deep understanding of program policy and execution issues necessary to create synergy.

Remember What Drives Us.
“Be proactive” and “Think win-win.” Like all employees, public servants come to work every day to make a difference and to be recognized for their effort. The quality of our work and the impact we have on the mission is largely determined by the strength of the relationships we develop with our colleagues. Take responsibility for engaging your counterparts continuously, listen to them carefully, and, of course, be courteous and patient. And don’t forget the rule of “no surprises” in all of your communications. Most importantly, don’t forget to recognize your colleagues for a job well done.

Model an Ideal.
While Covey speaks to us in modern terms the habits have been with us for centuries. Benjamin Franklin, one of the nation’s most successful public servants, was renown for his ability to communicate and form lasting relationships. His “virtues”, as he calls them, should be familiar by now:

  • Endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action;
  • Resolve to speak ill of no one whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults charged against others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good you know of everyone;
  • Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve;
  • Be sincere and use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.

Our personal and professional success -and that of our respective missions- depends in large part on how effectively we communicate with each other. By modeling these principles personally you’ll not only improve the headquarters and field relationship and mission delivery, you will provide the leadership that enables others to follow.

Jeff Baker is the director of the Office of Laboratory Operations for the Department of Energy in Golden, Colo.

Check out more from the series, “Talk Back to Washington.”