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October 01, 2007
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Champions of Change

Great public administration requires a continuous search for positive change opportunities. An organization unwilling to accept the reality that even a brand-new system installed 10 minutes ago may soon need updating or tweaking will not be a good steward of taxpayer money. The circumstances all around us in public service are the subject of evolution and sometimes, as in the case of tax-cutting initiatives, revolution.

The notion that change is essential to success in public service crashes headlong into the walls which government officials tend to construct (perhaps without a building permit) around their silos to retard or put off the day when change will be necessary.

Some of these silos confuse rules or labor agreement provisions with concepts such as property rights, causing many employees to assume they actually own their jobs as a matter of personal property. This job ownership concept is brought to us by important Supreme Court decisions. However, over the decades trappings have been added, which make corrective action very difficult when employees fail to perform or behave properly. 

Most change-retarders may be found by simply looking at an organization chart. The many divisions, departments, bureaus and offices which may be depicted on a chart each represent separation instead of integration. Whether these bureaucratic dynamics were the product of accidental accretion over the years or a more sinister, deliberate effort at preservation of the status quo, I leave it up to each of the HR Doctor’s readers to consider for themselves.

The imperative for change crashes headlong into the bureaucratic tendency to avoid change. The resultant crash is never pretty. Needed change may be put off, only to pop up later in a much more expensive, untimely and crisis-driven way. It may also be force-fed into the organization by leaders who leave in their authoritative wake an organization in fear and in near- clinical depression. Forced change creates uncertainty, and uncertainty harms the taxpayers in the short run as well as the long run.

The greatest leaders learned early in their careers, usually with a mentor to help them, that if they want to become powerful they must learn to control uncertainty. They must learn to create an environment in which change is not feared, but rather is welcomed.

Unfortunately, many government leaders, elected officials included, are not up to the task. They may articulate a strong vision but then ram it down peoples’ throats in ways which come across like having a root canal without Novocaine.

Such people are ultimately headed for change in their own lives when they are fired, tossed out of office or become helpless administrative eunuchs unable to make anything happen in the bureaucracy other than providing daily stimulation for people to plan their farewell parties.

Other leaders may seize on a particular single-purpose vision, create the environment in which that vision can become real and then immediately pack their bags and move on. They don’t stay long enough for what can often be the very hard day-to-day task of making the vision come to life and resolving the many unanticipated consequences that frequently result from major change.

Some leaders may recognize the need for change but don’t know how to make it happen in a successful way. Some may have the vision and understand the process of change, but they may be afraid to act, fearing that their friends, who pay constant lip service to support, will suddenly disappear. The leader marches out front and then turns around to find that his friends have suddenly all had compelling lunch appointments and can no longer be present at key moments when support is needed most.

On the other hand, for a product vendor such as those who sell automation products and systems, these difficult and sometimes chaotic situations create great opportunities. Those who recognize change but don’t know how to make it happen or are afraid of it often hit upon the solution of just hiring a consultant to manage the process at a huge cost. That way, the consultant can be blamed mercilessly when things go wrong. But the wisdom of the leader will be trumpeted if everything goes well. Only slight and occasional complaining may be heard inside the bowels of the finance department when the invoices from the vendor are paid. 

Having bashed vendors and consultants somewhat, the HR Doctor must point out that, increasingly, the leadership of organizations, including HR leadership, will be outsourced in the future to consultants and advisors like (surprise!) the HR Doctor.

Over time, governments will realize that the need to have separate “Directors of Something,” as well as assistant directors and others in every city and county, may not really require the services of an employee but rather to an outside strategic advisor/leader.

Everything said in this article so far has excluded one absolutely essential component for the imperative of change to be successfully met. That critical component is an internal “Champion of Change.” The champion, one would think, should be the elected head of government, or the appointed city or county manager or superintendent of schools. It may be a department head. It may be some bright, energetic, professional like the HR Daughter Elyse, who can articulate an idea that hadn’t been thought of before.

In an organization where the champion is not appreciated and supported, meaningful changes will not take place. The organization and the tax payers will suffer as a result and services will not be all that they could have been. The champion will eventually become so frustrated that a new ink cartridge will be placed in their home computer printer to crank out updated resumes. 

In the positive environment, which should and could be created and nurtured by the top leaders, this need not happen. In fact, a great leader is marked by creating and encouraging change and by being the mentor of those who propose innovative ideas. The best champion of change is a mentor as well as a passionate and articulate predictor of what could be in the future. It is a person who reduces uncertainty while, ironically, encouraging innovation. That is a very difficult balance but it is a career-making opportunity especially for new colleagues in public service. 

Learn to control uncertainty, learn the value of being a champion and of encouraging others to sign on to your vision of what the future might look like.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •

P.S.: The same principles above, mixed with mentoring and an innovation imperative, work brilliantly in supercharging your personal life — your “real” life — as well as you career! Give them a try with your spouse, your children and even your dog!


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