Dec 31 2009

The 360-Degree Leader

Government managers who want to extend their influence in all directions have learned that the first meeting with project stakeholders is the most important.

Photography by Drake Sorey
"You have to create a method for stakeholders to communicate with you or they go back to the old bureaucratic methods," GSA's Terry Weaver says.

When government and industry representatives began working together to craft a strategy for bringing federal agencies into compliance with Section 508 disability regulations, they quickly became embroiled in controversy over the word "testing."

Federal officials thought they were talking about the normal testing of new technology during an agency's procurement. But every time industry officials heard the word, they envisioned comprehensive federal requirements creating a new bureaucracy to test every new and existing piece of hardware and software.

"The word 'testing' could really inflame people. We quickly learned people needed to stop focusing on just the word and talk through what we really meant," says Terry Weaver, director of the Center for Information Technology Accommodation at the General Services Administration. Weaver is one of the leaders in the effort, now several years old, to ensure that federal Web sites and systems are accessible to people with disabilities.

Recalling that first meeting, Weaver notes that leaders subsequently worked hard to establish regular channels for interaction and discussion that gradually wore down the mistrust among participants. "You have to create a method for stakeholders to communicate with you or they go back to the old bureaucratic methods," she says.

Weaver's experience holds many lessons for federal IT project managers. Although the highly successful Section 508 effort was much larger than the typical government project, the essential problem is the same: How do you get buy-in and support from a variety of stakeholders — from the IT shop staff and end users to the finance team and top-level managers — when you don't have any real authority to control or direct these people?

In essence, federal managers need a 360-degree approach to leadership. That is, they must extend their influence in all directions — above, below and across organizations — to achieve project goals and objectives. With e-government and technology projects now extending across multiple offices and agencies, it is more important than ever for managers to get support from everyone who has a stake, and potential veto power, in a program.

No single action will magically transform managers into 360-degree leaders, but government executives and consultants point to a number of best practices and techniques that successful leaders use to garner maximum support for their projects.

Most important is laying the foundation at the first meeting of team members, they say. It is here where participants must come to agreement on the project's objectives. People won't commit to the project unless they understand its goals and why it is important to them and their organizations.

Leaders also must establish a clear path for reaching project goals at this meeting. They must prepare a plan that outlines the roles and responsibilities, a schedule of milestones and the framework for communication among team members. The plan must be flexible, of course, to accommodate input from participants. If constructed jointly with stakeholders, it provides an essential building block for the collaboration and communication needed to carry programs through inevitable bumps and unforeseen obstacles, such as a dispute over what "testing" means.

Extending influence beyond one's own organization requires a major shift in thinking for many federal managers, says Warren Blank, president of the Leadership Group, who teaches a course called "Understanding the 360-degree Leader" for the Federal Executive Institute. That's because they are used to operating within government's hierarchical structure.

"If you can only influence people in your direct chain of command, then it really limits your ability to get things done," Blank says. "But there are no limits when you go beyond the traditional command-and-control model to get willing followers."

That Vision Thing

"Begin with the end in mind," says Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. That advice holds true for the 360-degree leader.

"It's very important to have a sense of what your goal is, and to be able to articulate a vision of what you are trying to accomplish," adds Kathryn Johnson, executive director for leadership and management at Management Concepts, a Vienna, Va., company that trains and consults with government leaders.

The first meeting with stakeholders is the time to share that vision with others. "Bring all the people together so that everyone understands the common goals, and then begin working together to build consensus," says Hugh Walkup, a special adviser in the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the Education Department.

Walkup previously led the department's Education Data Exchange Network (EDEN) program, a system for exchanging data about federal education programs between the states and the federal government. Getting the EDEN system, which has been running for about a year, from concept to reality required an enormous amount of compromise among a large group of participants, he says.

"One of our advantages was that we had a single idea — the need for data sharing — that everyone could agree upon. The challenge was working out the details," Walkup says. "But finding agreement on the central goal made it easier for stakeholders to make sacrifices for the common good."

What's in It for Me?

The first meeting is also a good time to firmly establish everyone's roles and responsibilities. The project leader might ask participants why the project is important to them, Johnson says. Their answers provide important feedback.

"If you encounter resistance, you can say, 'I'd like to understand what your questions are,' " she says.

Resistance can also mean that participants don't see how the project will benefit them or their organizations. Technical managers often have a problem communicating a project's value to nontechnical stakeholders, says Fred Thompson, a vice president at the Council for Excellence in Government, where he directs the Washington council's management improvement initiatives, including the CIO Boot Camp. For example, IT project leaders might not persuade anyone to spend money for an upgraded network or computer if it just sounds like more bells and whistles for the tech group.

"They need to explain how the investment will improve the whole organization and contribute to its mission," Thompson says. "They must be able to make this argument to people who don't understand the language of technology."

Blank concurs, saying people want to know, "What's in it for me?"

In other words, if you want people to follow you, don't try to persuade them by talking about what the project will do for you and your organization. "Identify their needs and show them how your project or activity will help them meet their own needs," he says.

Make Your Meeting Memorable

The project leader's first meeting with stakeholders lays the foundation for success.

• Identify everyone who needs to be involved and get them together for a meeting.
• Share the vision of what you are trying to accomplish — explained in terms of how it will help participants.
• Establish roles and responsibilities.
• Ask people to commit to their responsibilities on the project.
• Establish metrics for measuring progress.
• Set up a regular process for communication.

These types of discussions set the tone for frank and productive communication — the lifeblood of any project. Not every conflict or obstacle will be resolved at the first or second meeting. Much hard work lies ahead. But leaders who demonstrate from the start their ability to listen dispassionately to all viewpoints establish a model for communication among participants that will last throughout the project.

These initial discussions also help managers discover team leaders who will help bring others on board and keep the project moving forward.

"Don't try to do it all alone," says Melva Strang, former program manager for the Air Force's $9 billion Network Centric Solutions (NetCents) contract, and now chief of the products and services branch for the Headquarters Operations and Sustainment Systems Group at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. "Know your team members' strengths and who the leaders are. I leaned heavily on the leaders."

Plan for Success

Strang uses a mental checklist before beginning a project. "I ask, 'Who is on my team? What are my resources? What is the schedule? And what is the political environment that might impact this project?' "

Joel Capperella, market manager for public sector, aerospace and defense, with project management company Primavera Systems of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., recommends a slight variation of this approach. "Document where you are today, where the gaps are and what you need to get" to the final objective, he says.

Both approaches enable the project leader to develop a precise baseline or plan that describes the project's goals, schedule and anticipated costs. It also describes who will be responsible for tasks and any deliverables along the way.

Management experts emphasize that once tasks are identified, project leaders should get participants to publicly commit to their assignments. Don't be afraid to ask them directly: Will you commit to this project and to your designated tasks and responsibilities?

"It's like a group covenant," Johnson says. "It creates ownership among the participants."

The 360-degree leader must come heavily prepared to the first meeting with project participants. The project's objectives are clear, and the leader has at least a general plan for how it will be accomplished. The leader also allows participants to share ideas, concerns and even objections, all with the goal of moving participants toward genuine support for the project.

When everyone on the team has embraced the project's goals and plan, then all share a joint commitment to making it succeed.

"I told my team, 'You are empowered. You know the schedule, budget and goals. Just give me the metrics to monitor your success,' " Strang recalls. "As the leader, my responsibility is to move obstacles out of their way so they can do their work."