Today’s government is experiencing a “new normal.” From the short-term dramas of hurricanes and oil well disasters to the long fight against poverty and terrorism, government challenges are becoming far more chaotic and complex.
Typically, these challenges not only involve multiple agencies but span well beyond the federal government’s boundaries, requiring collaborative, integrated responses from various levels of government, international partners and even non-governmental organizations to get the job done.
By almost any definition, these are “wicked” problems, and they share two characteristics. First, effective responses require that multiple agencies and organizations — each with its own missions, interests and cultures — work together, and this challenges a functionally stove-piped federal government. Second, the type of collaboration needed to effectively respond to these wicked problems requires a set of leadership competencies that most government officials are simply not developed to handle.
We believe that the wicked problems confronting our government (and our nation) require a new kind of “enterprise leader” — a leader who can understand, build and leverage networks of critical organizational and individual actors to achieve a result that is impossible if those organizations and individuals act alone. Such a leader requires boundary-spanning, “netcentric” competencies that are neither formally recognized nor deliberately developed as part of those Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) required for selection into the Senior Executive Service (SES).
For example, enterprise leaders must have an intimate understanding of the missions and cultures of the various agencies — as well as how they interact — that must collaborate to solve a wicked problem, yet the vast majority of senior executives and SES candidates have no experience outside their home agency.
Similarly, enterprise leaders must be able to exercise influence beyond their agency’s boundaries, without benefit of formal authority, while most agency leaders are developed with an implicit dependence on the formal authority they enjoy within their organization. And it helps to have a dramatic deadline (like Y2K), a compelling crisis or the hammer of the budget.
We’ve had a chance to study successful enterprise leaders, such as former Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen and former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, as well as exceptional career executives like the Defense Department’s Pat Tamburrino, who have mastered this new way of leading. Their experiences, and their development, are the focus of our new book, “Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide for Enterprise Leaders,” part of the Innovations in Leadership series published by Brookings Press.
One thing we found is that traditional, agency-centric leadership development programs are just not up to the task of preparing those who must tackle such vexing, intractable interagency problems. It takes years and careers to build boundary-spanning enterprise leadership skills, and their deliberate development will require the President’s Management Council and the Office of Personnel Management to adopt an enterprise-wide approach to leadership development, from the identification and development of enterprise executive candidates to their selection, evaluation and deployment as senior leaders across the federal enterprise.
We believe OPM should establish a sixth ECQ focusing on “Leading the Enterprise” as an additional prerequisite to SES selection, to include a phased-in requirement for some interagency experience — historically an unnatural act for those who aspire to the SES. The only way to ensure that executives-to-be acquire enterprise leadership competencies is to require an interagency assignment, much like the military and civilian employees in the Intelligence Community.
In addition, OPM should establish an internal executive search capability to help agencies post and fill interagency assignment opportunities and find the best-qualified leaders (from inside and outside government). The most talented leaders, in and outside government, are usually not in the market for a new job — by definition, they are highly successful just where they are. The best leaders have to be recruited.
These and other approaches we recommend in the book may be controversial, but the nation’s problems are too wicked, and the need for effective enterprise leaders too great, to continue with business-as-usual leadership development. Indeed, the federal government reached a similar conclusion several years ago with respect to its corps of acquisition professionals and set tough, enterprise-wide standards to improve their performance. We suggest nothing less for a resource that is even more critical — the government’s senior leadership corps.
Ron Sanders, a former member of the Senior Executive Service serving in five departments and agencies, is currently vice president and fellow with Booz Allen Hamilton. Jackson Nickerson is associate dean and the Frahm Family Professor of Strategy and Organization with the Washington University of St. Louis and a Brookings Institution non-resident senior scholar. They are authors of the new book “Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide For Enterprise Leaders,” published by Brookings Press.