Know Before You Go: A Story About Government Culture
by Landon Cook, on Sep 25, 2020 2:44:55 PM
Let me tell you about Bob.
Bob currently serves as a double-decade-tenured field office director in a large Government Agency. He is thoroughly experienced both horizontally and vertically within his organization, having served in a wide variety of divisions within the agency in an even wider variety of roles. Most of these roles have been in management and/or leadership, and he is frequently called upon to lead in times of rapid and new growth (he joked that he had hired half of the 4000-person Department, but there’s more fact than fiction in that statement. He hired me twice.) Bob serves as a friend and father figure to many of his peers and employees, and he is on a first-name basis with nearly the entire agency. He has done everything from leading mass investigations to hosting Purple Rain-themed department-wide accountability meetings. Within this world, Bob is a cultural icon. We all know a ‘Bob’.
People like Bob always seemed untouchable, to me. They had achieved self-actualization and applied themselves wholly to something fitting, worthwhile, and rewarding. But even with his iconic status, Bob was not immune to the effects of institutionalized fear. When he was offered an opportunity (and accepted) to serve as an Assistant Commissioner inside agency headquarters, there were a few cultural and contextual elements that would greatly hinder his service:
- He oversaw a new division with a completely new purpose. This purpose was driving Departmental accountability through data accuracy.
- The Department was recently under intense fire from the media and faced greater public and political scrutiny than it had in years.
- The agency’s leadership distrusted management staff throughout the Department. They were swift to act with permanence on both errors and ideological disagreements (a phenomenon which was labeled “Mission Blocking”).
I never liked the quote, “the one who breaks up a fight is the one who ends up with a knife in their chest,” but sadly it applies here. With the new and disciplinary effects of this data accountability, Bob frequently found himself in a mediator role between executive leadership, operational staff, and field offices. In mere months, I watched as Bob worked absurd hours under acute stress. Trying to juggle between supporting his teams and the customers, his cycles of sacrifice became unsustainable. This seasoned veteran achieved a new “first” in his long and fruitful career. He stopped. He left the title, transferred to work in a medium-sized county, and quietly resumed his former role as field office director.
Before I get to the happy ending of this story, let me outline why this arc is so critical. How was a respected senior leader forced to retreat? And, in time, how did this leader resurface to the forefront where he was so evidently needed? The answer to both questions: culture.
Not long after Bob resigned, new leadership was appointed. Upon assessing its culture, leadership found a recurring theme: fear. It existed in every nook and cranny from overcautious decision-making to less-than-honest internal activity. This new leadership initiated a ‘Culture of Trust’ as one of the four top priorities for the first year (directly to oppose the prior ‘Culture of Fear’). Open, honest communications were encouraged and exercised immediately – starting with the new Commissioner herself. Over the following weeks, the Commissioner’s staff began to emulate her openness and, dare I say, vulnerability. Within months, the trusting approach was visible across headquarters, and within a year, I could see the field offices adopting this culture – including Bob’s department. Bob was back. He became visibly engaged and professionally courageous again. He spearheaded new initiatives, organized his staff to support major structural changes and assumed responsibility of many large-scale projects. A ‘Culture of Trust’ had been established.
By now, you may be asking yourself – as a business partner, how can I work with a government organization on the ‘fearful’ side of culture? And, more importantly: how can I help them move towards a culture of trust? In our next blog in this double-feature, I’ll share the 5 Checkpoints to Government Culture to empower you to:
- Differentiate cultural elements unique to government
- Identify a ‘fear’ or ‘trust’ culture
- Find your influencers
- Read subtle culture cues
- Shape the winds of change as culture improves
Written by Landon Cook
Landon Cook is a proven change leader and future-maker. Landon shaped his career within state government, where he inspired the art of the possible by leading and executing the challenge to implement Customer Service Management (CSM) on the ServiceNow platform.
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