What you may know intuitively but have difficulty conveying in
budget allocation negotiations is that an alternate strategy
exists. Agencies can thrive during crisis and emerge more
competitively positioned, with higher morale and an increased sense
of purpose and value.
Between 2007 and 2010, FDIC had many employee engagement
challenges. It faced organizational strain from expanding its
temporary workforce by more than 1,000 employees and new regulatory
responsibilities associated with the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street
Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Among the challenges, the financial crisis loomed biggest. The
agency could easily have argued that all resources needed to be
allocated to meet the demands for mission-critical functions (bank
closings and examination activities). But Bair and her executive
leadership team had a strategic vision to thrive amidst the crisis.
FDIC committed resources to a culture change initiative, sustained
its investment in learning and development, and acknowledged that
leading effectively was a responsibility shared by all employees.
The corporation will continue to make changes to its corporate
culture. Doing so in a time of increasingly heavy mission-critical
workload will be difficult, but FDICs senior leaders remain
committed to continually improving the culture at the agency. FDIC
employees at all levels [are required] to engage in the change
process and take personal responsibility for influencing positive
outcomes. (FDIC All Employee Survey Results and Plans for Action,
From November 2008 until February 2011, I had the privilege of
serving as chair for the College of Leadership Development in FDIC.
It was the time of the surgea phrase that stuck due to the expanded
workforce and the increasing pace of regulatory activities. We
educated staff on leveraging leadership development as a strategic
We illustrated the value of preserving our investment in learning
and development when faced with competing demands for resources,
and we reflected on the idea that the people and mission were
worthy targets for investment.
The payoff in employee engagement and organizational and leadership
effectiveness has been substantial. In 2010 FDIC was ranked in the
top 10 places to work by the Partnership for Public Services Best
Places to Work survey and reached number one in 2011. With an
overall index score of 85.9, FDIC had improved its ranking from
historic lows of 54.5 (2005) and 59.5 (2007). In the midst of the
financial sector crisis, the agency had not only met performance
demands but also dealt with significant organizational issues.
Starting Point: A Vision for High Performance
During my first weeks as chair of the College of Leadership
Development the mandate was clear: no matter the pace of workforce
expansion and the increased workload, promote leadership
development at all levels of the agency. The corporation had
launched a series of leadership courses taught by external
contractors. What was needed was the architecture that would
support a vision for leadership at all levels, alignment of
leadership development to mission critical organizational needs,
and more cost-effective internal expertise.
During the design process, I added in a systems thinking-based
strategic framework. I developed this in 2005 based on coursework
offered by the Federal Executive Institute and conducted by the
Commonwealth Center for High Performance. This framework would
define and align leadership programs to emphasize the critical
value of using leadership development as a tool to address the
context in which we were leading and performing within the
Strategic Framework: High-Performance Leadership
A strategic igh-performance leadership framework can be extremely
useful to a time-challenged staff juggling overwhelming workloads.
I challenged myself to build a model that incorporated the critical
elements of high-performance leadership, could be applied to
diverse organizational settings (public and private sector), and
could be used as a strategic leadership effectiveness tool,
allowing agencies to customize elements of the model to fit their
We used this model as a foundational element in all FDIC leadership
courses and programs. We also used it in an applied setting as a
strategic thinking tool with more than 100 of our Division of
Receivership and Resolution managers to assess realignment of
resources and redefine strategy when first faced with the new
regulatory requirements of the Dodd-Frank legislation.
The model is flexible enough to incorporate new elements and can be
customized to reflect critical stress points or organizational
issues. The goal is to get busy leaders to consider whether they
are operating in all four boxes (strategic focus, nimble use of
resources, information flows, and morale.) In this way, the model
also can be a change-management tool. Managers can adjust their
execution given new demands or circumstances.
First the strategic leadership framework underpinned leadership
programs and initiatives. Then we employed it to assist employees
at all levels to keep in mind leadership best practices while
managing an unrelenting workload.
Communication: A Powerful Tool
During the height of the financial crisis, FDIC established three
temporary satellite offices to support the increased demand for
services in managing bank closings, known as resolutions and
receiverships. Located in California, Florida, and Chicago, these
offices multiplied the number of field-based employees. A
substantial number (1,260) were new temporary hires facing the
challenge of meeting performance demands while dealing with their
own learning curve. Additionally, all employees were at risk for
burnout due to expanding workloads.
In 2008 an internal working group, the Culture Change Committee,
recommended that the agency circulate routine tips on leadership to
improve morale and professional endurance among the workforce. I
saw this as an opportunity to disseminate best practices in
leadership and launched a monthly commentary on leadership, which
was distributed by email to all managers and then posted on the
FDIC intranet for all employees.
The goal of each essay was to provide straightforward
back-of-the-envelope tools for overwhelmed managers and to
communicate more broadly to the employee workforce that leadership
mattered amidst the crisis. Essays focused on morale, endurance,
and crisis leadership. Field and headquarters staff came to
anticipate these postings, and in spite of their overwhelming
workload, FDIC employees often wrote that these postings showed
them that HQ understood their challenges.
Leadership in Action: Learning Curve
Tools and Tips for Guiding Your New Staff
Even in our high-paced environment it is essential that we find
time early on in the induction phase of a new employee to provide
learning curve guidance. This is even true with employees who
transfer into our divisions from other roles within the
Learning Curve Conversations
Know how you should demonstrate your performance and competency:
- Early on have a conversation with your new staff members
clearly describing a fundamental tenet of demonstrating
performance; demonstrate competency and credibility by meeting the
fundamental responsibilities of the position before expecting
advancement or more complex assignments.
- Be explicit. What would technical credibility and competency
- Remind your newest staff members to spend their time making
sure they are really good at the fundamentals and to invest time in
understanding what their managers and team members need and expect
Understand how you should approach building relationships:
- Guide your staff to understand which relationships are critical
and how to build their credibility. Their initial focus should be
on peer to peer and managing up relationships.
- Your employee should be able to answer the question, How do you
contribute to the success for your peers and your manager?
Develop an awareness of how to build influence:
- The starting point for influence in any new organizational role
is to demonstrate that you are highly competent at what you are
there to do.
- The next step is to build a reputation for being a trusted
advisor with the ability to assist others, problem solve, and
support your colleagues.
- Develop the ability to fully understand the perspective and
positions taken by others.
Best Practices Toward a Competitive Advantage
Although not every agency is hit on multiple fronts at once as FDIC
was, we all at times must sustain and lead performance during an
unprecedented crisis period. Our leaders make do with limited
resources, uncertainty, and continuous organizational development
needs. Federal employees expect and deserve sound leadership. There
are steps we, as learning and development professionals, can take
to thrive amidst the crisis:
- Lead performance, sustain morale, and promote organizational
effectiveness by safeguarding your investment in learning and
- Leverage leadership development by aligning programs to address
both the longer term organizational issues and the near-term demand
for doing more with less.
- Use communication tools, such as the monthly essay on
leadership, to reinforce best practices in leading effectively for
- Adopt a systems-thinking framework to align leadership
development content and skill development.
- Build internal subject matter expertise to deliver
cost-effective leadership development programs.
Adopting these best practices will give you and your agency the
competitive advantage you need to be able to look back in two or
three years and report how your agency thrived amidst the crisis.
FDIC Internal Posting: Leadership in Action April
Finding Your Pace: Leadership Endurance Strategies
There are times when i have to ask my family to remind me what day
This staff persons comment shared with me by one of our Drr
[Division of resolutions and receiverships] field managers during a
recent site visit reflects the intensity of the pace and
performance demands we continue to face as we move through another
How do we pace ourselves in crisis? we posed this question to
ambassador nathaniel howell, who faced a 134-day siege of the U.S.
embassy in Kuwait during the iraqi invasion from august 2 to
December 1990. building on the strategy he shared to model
endurance and pacing we offer specific steps which may be helpful
to us in the weeks and months ahead.
Manage the unpredictable by developing work arounds.
Avoid useless worry. Focus on what needs to be done in the
immediate term. Keep central goals in mind and dismiss any anxiety
that leads you past what you cannot influence.
Pace your staff. Your high performers will reach burnout quickly
and other staff may not possess a sufficient level of resilience
under stress. Monitor each.
Be prepared to practice independent decision making. Prepare
yourself to make decisions that suit the realities you are facing
but know this probably will not get you promoted.
Leverage purpose. There is nothing more motivating than a sense of
purpose during crisis.
Pace yourself. Schedule a time each day to disconnect.
Delegate. ask yourself who might be the person on your staff who
would be most suited to take on this responsibility for you. if you
use too much of your emotional and intellectual energy on execution
you will diminish your reserve to lead. Stay out of the weeds.
Create small victories. Find reasons to celebrate making it
Manage expectations. if you cant say no, negotiate by
collaboratively shifting priorities.
Lighten up. humor is a great stress reliever.
Know you can live with and survive the crisis. we know we will get
through this together, the only question for us is how. we invite
comments or questions.