Profiles in Improvement
Effective Leadership: Senior Leaders
The Effective Leadership: Senior Leaders category measures employees’ level of respect for senior leaders, employees’ satisfaction with the amount of information provided by management, and employees’ perceptions about senior leaders’ honesty, integrity and motivational abilities.
Senior leaders are defined as the heads of departments or agencies and the immediate leadership team responsible for directing their policies and priorities. These leaders may hold either a political or career appointment and are typically members of the Senior Executive Service or equivalent.
We spoke to several agency leaders about the barriers and opportunities they faced in 2021, and the strategies they implemented to improve their scores in this category. These strategies offer vital lessons to other federal leaders.
Senior federal leaders played a critical role in our government last year, especially during and after the presidential transition. Many leaders were affected by the transition—either as new appointees waiting for the confirmation process to be completed or as career leaders taking on extra responsibilities to compensate for important leadership gaps.
Working through the transition and taking care of employees while managing our pandemic response and confronting other challenges was a tall order.
However, many agencies excelled in the practice of leadership and delivered on their missions. Throughout the history of Best Places to Work rankings, employees have consistently given higher scores to supervisors—who play a more active role in their work and lives—than senior leaders, highlighting an important gap in the employee experience for senior leaders to address.
“Taking care of our people and ensuring continuity of operations in support of our mission during an unprecedented global pandemic and amid multiple global crises has been one of the greatest challenges the department has taken on in its history.”
Senior official at the State Department
Strategies for Success
- Build foundational trust in a crisis: After managing the repatriation of thousands of Americans at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the State Department faced a longer-term challenge of continuing to manage and support employees in hundreds of embassies and consulates across the globe. Agency leaders trusted staff to adapt and persevere, and proved their commitment to employees by rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to more than 200 overseas posts and maintaining testing and social distancing requirements. Leaders prioritized keeping staff healthy and safe, regardless of their geographical location, and provided them with resources like expanded counseling services and new technology to support remote work.
- Empower staff: At the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, senior leaders embarked on a long and purposeful journey to change their workplace culture after several years of declining morale and feelings of disempowerment among staff. By increasing employee autonomy at all levels, providing an encouraging space for creative experimentation and failures, and creating an environment where staff trust and feel respected by leadership, leaders at SAMHSA have taken major steps toward listening to the workforce and acting on its ideas.
- Focus on learning: Over the past 10 years, leaders at the Office of the General Counsel at the Department of Education have supported the work of the Workplace Improvement Team (formed to enhance the workplace experience) to have a leading role in developing and implementing the office’s employee engagement strategies, collect feedback and input from staff and leaders, and provide a collective voice for employees. The longevity of this team has created a sustainable culture of improvement and collaboration, helped maintain a psychologically safe environment for employees to discuss even the most challenging of topics, and enabled new relationships to develop between staff, their leaders and many other agencies across the federal government.
“We work most effectively and efficiently when we are a team, from senior leadership to the staff level, that purposefully and explicitly collaborates.”
Senior official from the Office of the General Counsel at the Department of Education
As agencies transition into hybrid and in-person work, it is important that leaders keep their fingers on the pulse of the organization and look for more ways to improve their employees’ experience.
- Strengthening capacity: The State Department is learning from the lessons of the pandemic, and senior leaders are driving a multiyear modernization plan that aims to improve capacity in the technological and organizational spaces—from laptops to assessing telework-eligible positions. Creating space and opportunity to build on lessons and innovations from the pandemic is a critical leadership function in this era.
- Knowledge sharing: The workplace culture in the Office of the General Counsel at the Department of Education will continue to support the work of the office’s Workplace Improvement Team to address challenges, build on our successes, and continue to learn and help create opportunities—not only by holding topical events and building connections between employees on key topics, but also by sharing results with offices and learning from similar groups across the Department to help all offices access best practices and improve as well.
- Investing in leaders: The Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security is taking a more intentional approach to growing leaders at all levels by making sure that they have both the technical and management skills necessary to succeed. For senior leaders specifically, they aim to continue working in a unified manner, communicating on all decisions and using data to inform proposed policies.