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Tackling Wicked Government Problems: Developing Enterprise Leaders

August 15, 2013 01:00 PM

Brookings Institution hosted a forum yesterday in Washington, DC to discuss the topic of enterprise leadership. The forum centered on the release of a compilation of essays, Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide for Developing Enterprise Leaders. Admiral Thad Allen, USCG (retired) and Executive Vice-President at Booz Allen Hamilton, and Ronald Sanders, Vice-President at Booz Allen Hamilton, delivered the keynote that defined the enterprise leadership model. A panel discussion, moderated by Elaine Kamarck, Senior Fellow and Director, Management and Leadership Initiative at Brookings, then discussed enterprise leadership in both theory and practice within the federal government. The panel included Stephen Shih, Deputy Associate Director, Office of Personnel Management; Laura Craig, Senior Analyst, U.S. Government Accountability Office; Susan Kelly, Director, Department of Defense Office of Veterans Transition; and James Trinka, Executive Director, Leading EDGE.

Government leaders face increasingly complex problems that demand collaborative interagency solutions. Nearly all of the major challenges the government faces today, from cyber security and food safety to natural and man-made disasters, require leaders at all levels who can coordinate resources beyond their immediate control.

Sanders and Allen opened up the forum by sharing what today’s “new normal” is within the government, that most crises are “inter” in nature, such as interagency, interstate, and international. “No longer can the government responses to such incidents rely on the stovepipe model,” said Sanders. Such a model is where one agency handles the problem with little input from others. “With an enterprise approach to government, cross-cutting resources across all relevant agencies, there is no longer a ‘we’ or ‘they’ but ‘us.’”

Such a leadership model requires a new set of competencies. Allen remarked that several major incidents in the last few years have highlighted the fact that there are few of these new leaders in the government today. The Deep Horizon oil spill, cyber security, hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and many other incidents have shown where silo leadership has not covered the seams that exist between multiple agencies trying to coordinate efforts.  “We can understand the problem and extent when we look through the chaos to find avenues of resolution through multiple collaborations.” These new leadership competencies find and fill the gaps and white spaces in authority and responsibility when responding to a major crisis.

Intraorganizational landscapes are important considerations for leaders in government, as most challenges originate in the immediate organizational environment. Leaders are developed in the classroom and on the job to effectively lead in their intraorganizational environment. “Enterprise leaders can facilitate interagency collaboration, achieve and sustain a unity of effort, and build and leverage interagency networks to find and implement whole government solutions to the issue at hand,” said Allen.

The panel took the definitions provided by Allen and Sanders and discussed how enterprise leadership is being used in practice. “Enterprise leadership is realistic and critical to address major challenges,” said Shih. “No organization or agency has the budget, resources, or capability to fully contain or react to today’s major challenges.”

Kelly added that today’s senior enterprise leaders need to pass this along. “Senior leaders need to pull along junior leaders they identify with these competencies and show them the ‘nuts and bolts’ of such coordination.” She also stressed their effective leaders struck a balance between a strategic view and practical application in the field.

The current practice of agency rotation, where an individual is encouraged to work in a different agency or organization for experience, needs to be more common. Such rotation is an “effective tool for professional development and is a high investment strategy,” said Craig. “Individuals can learn foundational understanding, perspectives, and culture of the other organization, which is invaluable during cooperative tasks.” Such a view can also provide a different perspective on the person’s own agency and spot areas of strength and improvement.

Trinka countered the rotation model in place. “If the rotations are being done only at the executive level, it’s already too late,” he said. Trinka recommended offering rotational assignments earlier in a potential leader’s career track, as well as a general focus on building interpersonal networks. He also suggested that agencies look at moving from transactional collaborations to relational. “Transactional collaborations start with each agency determining the solution and then looking for how the partnership can benefit themselves,” he said. “A relational approach focuses more on collaboration and solutions that benefits the recipients and not the agencies involved. Collectively formulating the problem together brings ownership of the issue, rather than putting multiple agency solutions on the table and engaging in a turf war.”


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