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In the IT Trenches

Here are 10 tips that served this former Air Force CIO well on the front lines of federal information technology.

Photo: Forrest MacCormack

I entered federal service in 1981 expecting to stay for a year or two. I am retiring this month after two dozen years, having held some of the most exciting and challenging jobs that I could ever have imagined.

Along the way, I have learned quite a bit, including lessons on how to get things done in government. Here's my Top 10:

1: Don't accept the status quo. Many leave government because they find it hard to get things done. I stayed in government because it was clear that I would never have the opportunity to accomplish so much outside of government service.

I found that government provides many opportunities to make a large impact, if one is willing to tackle the challenge. I worked for a two-star general who used to remark that he preferred giving tough tasks to lieutenants and captains because "unlike lieutenant colonels and colonels, they did not know that the task was not possible, so they just went out and did it!"

I was often amazed that people who are given the opportunity to contribute collaboratively to effect change reacted with enormous creativity. The job of a government leader should be to provide opportunities to effect change.

2: People are motivated by appreciation. I found that a simple "thank you" goes a long way.

I will never forget the day a new assistant remarked to me that in her 20 years in government, no one had ever said "thank you" to her for just doing her daily job as I just had. That statement made a big impression on me.

During preparation for the year 2000 rollover at the Energy Department, we used an incentive fund of $3 million to motivate the information technology team to achieve an accelerated schedule and improve our congressional rating on date change work. We assigned so-called stretch goals to each organization.

The results were astonishing. Employees were taking work home at night and working weekends to reach and even surpass the goals.

No employee got more than a couple of hundred dollars from the program. In truth, the monetary incentives were small compensation for the enormous amount of work accomplished.

In the end, it was clear to me that the size of the monetary incentive was less important than the fact DOE leadership appreciated the staff's extraordinary efforts.

3: A bad procurement deal is bad for both government and industry. Business relationships must be mutually beneficial to government and industry. The notion that only one party suffers from a bad contract is wishful thinking and shortsighted.

If a contract is not, to use a common phrase, a win-win situation, the quicker it can be made mutually beneficial, the better the chances for success—even if that means renegotiating it.

Likewise, I have found that in most cases poor contract performance is the result of shortfalls or failures on the part of both the government and contractor. An agency and a vendor must hold each other accountable for performing their respective roles.

4: Common sense goes a long way when making decisions. Some people are capable of brilliant, clever solutions. Most, like me, are not. I found that after assembling information relating to a decision and assessing the likely consequences carefully, reliance on plain old common sense is generally the best recipe for success.

5: Getting everyone on the same wavelength is half the battle. In government, most activities involve myriad people and organizations. Simple communication is of paramount importance.

I used to hold quarterly joint program reviews for development and acquisition programs. The end users, contractors and government program office each presented their status and, most important, aired their top issues. Getting a common and objective understanding of issues is essential to a program's success.

Similarly, in working with Congress, the Office of Management and Budget or the Government Accountability Office, I found that most problems resulted from poor communications—or in some cases an attempt to share only part of the story, which led to distrust. Full disclosure breeds credibility.

Throughout my career, I experimented with ways to improve communications. For example, I learned that oral proposals are far superior to written responses in communicating a bid's substance and especially its qualitative aspects.

6: Choose your bosses carefully. This is my answer to the question: "What is the most significant contributor to a CIO's success ?" But I found this to be true in many situations, not just in my CIO jobs.

Outstanding, supportive bosses are especially important if you do not have direct authority over the people or groups critical to an initiative's success. The Clinger-Cohen Act aligns CIOs under each agency's head for this reason.

Because I had never planned to stay in government for a full career, I critically assessed each new job opportunity—and my potential bosses—to determine if it was time to return to industry. As a result, I have worked for a string of superb bosses and owe much of my success to their support. I preferred bosses who gave me lots of freedom to pursue my responsibilities with a high degree of independence but who also were available when I wanted advice or needed help resolving a problem.

7: Leverage personal strengths in yourself and in subordinates. Let's face it: None of us is good at everything. By the same token, everyone is good at many things. Recognizing and then building on the strengths of your team is one of the most important responsibilities of a good leader.

8: Understand and leverage an organization's culture. Every organization has a unique set of cultural habits. Working against these is difficult and leads to trouble. Moreover, IT tends to be a highly personal and creative occupation, which puts great emphasis on the importance of culture.

DOE had the culture of a scientific organization and placed high value on individual ideas and academic rigor. I will never forget a visit from four DOE lab directors who challenged my cybersecurity strategy. Their dispute was not with its substance but that I had not subjected it to peer review by the lab security folks.

Similarly, a consolidation of Air Force servers and networks—in essence taking computers away from many organizations who viewed them as critical to their mission—was successful because it was implemented through the time-honored chain of command within the service, receiving approval of four-star chiefs at each major command. It was not me or Air Force folks at the Pentagon who were responsible for the consolidation; it was the four-star generals to whom the organizations on each base reported.

The Air Force and DOE had different cultures requiring different approaches to achieve desired results.

9: There is no substitute for hard work. Getting things done in large bureaucracies is difficult and usually takes a lot of personal energy. Likewise, sustaining the momentum of projects that cross multiple organizations requires continuous attention. I have found that those who are willing to consistently put in the time and energy are the ones who are most successful in government.

10: You can accomplish great things if you don't care who gets the credit. This was a favorite maxim of one of my bosses. I found it to be true, especially in government, where rewards are not measured in monetary terms.

Credit for an idea or a result can become the reward that is sought after. But pursuit of credit is self-defeating because your motivations are generally transparent. Subordinates and co-workers can be motivated to support a worthy mission, and there are an unlimited number of worthy missions in government service. People are usually reticent, however, to support someone whose primary objective is seeking personal recognition.

As I reach the end of my government career, I see that being a public servant has great rewards. But the best reward has been the opportunity to work with so many dedicated and hard-working people from both government and industry in pursuit of something greater than themselves—to serve and improve our nation. That's a reward I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Dec 31 2009