Janet Hale is a director at Deloitte Services LP and former undersecretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security. ()
With the dedication of more than 240,000 employees, the Department of Homeland Security has succeeded in its ultimate goal – keeping our nation safe. There’s no question that DHS employees are motivated by the mission and are experts in what they do; however, the organization continues to face low leadership effectiveness scores. In The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government 2013 rankings, co-produced by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte, DHS ranked 19th out of 19 large agencies in 11 out of 14 categories, including effective leadership. Given the numerous challenges that DHS has had to overcome as an evolving department, perhaps this isn’t surprising. Meeting the mission is the critical factor in what the agency does, but working at DHS should also provide satisfaction to employees. Improvements can be realized without a great deal of investment.
DHS continues to achieve its mission and solve day-to-day operational challenges, yet it continues to be rated low in developing leaders at all levels. As the new leaders come into the department, it may be beneficial to look at ways to improve their leadership strategies.
This is different than making decisions about day-to-day operations because it involves complex mechanisms like engagement and relationships. Effective leadership requires meaningful, purposeful engagement with employees, and the ability to engage with employees. Connecting the strategy to employee goals can help to drive retention and the willingness to perform more effectively. Increasing employee engagement is a process, one that requires trust and transparency as well as significant time and commitment from leadership – something that can be challenging when working in a highly operational environment.
Trust is the currency of effective leadership because leadership is inherently social and personal. Because trust is reciprocal, one of the best ways to build it is to treat others as valuable and trustworthy. This applies equally to political appointees and career government leaders. With a new wave of incoming senior leaders, DHS has the opportunity to elevate employee engagement and leadership and go further faster.
It always helps to look at success stories from other agencies when examining what could be done at DHS. For example, the Department of Transportation, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s “Ten Years of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Rankings” report, was ranked dead last at 30th in 2009 and rose to 8th (out of 19 large agencies) in 2013. Here are some tips derived from what DOT did to achieve those results:
1. Own it. You have to own the solution. A critical issue like this cannot be delegated. In 2009, “Newly appointed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood…decided to meet the challenge head-on, declaring that improving employee satisfaction and commitment…would be a priority during his tenure.” Owning the solution may sound simple, but it can have dramatic effects on an organization.
2. Engage. It is critical, too, that employees at all levels feel responsible and be involved in the process. DOT, for example, prioritized “listening to what employees were saying and responding to their concerns” as a way to involve employees throughout the organization in the solution. One way DOT accomplished that was by creating “an online site to collect employee suggestions for workplace improvements.”
3. Ask: Ask for help. While DHS is experienced in keeping America safe, agency leaders may not be specialists in leadership development or employee engagement. Research shows that as many as 40 percent of executive transitions fail in the first 18 months, so making an investment and receiving an objective perspective can be beneficial. Leaders sometimes believe they need to have all the answers instead of focusing on finding the answers. The answers might not be easy, but they’ll be worth it—to leaders, to employees, to the mission, and to the nation.