washingtonpost.com, March 12, 2010
Each time I read about the challenges facing Metro's new leadership, I feel a familiar tension in the pit of my stomach. Every article about Metro brings back my own experience -- painful but ultimately satisfying -- as I led the turnaround of D.C.’s troubled Child and Family Services Agency.
CFSA in the early 2000s, when I became director, and WMATA today, after its string of unsettling accidents, surely rank among the toughest possible settings for public-sector leaders. In such environments, confidence is shot. A history of failure has eroded morale and credibility, intense public scrutiny has promoted a culture of blame rather than learning, resources have never measured up to needs, and reliable information is somewhere between elusive and non-existent.
But I’ve learned from my own experience and watching others that in even the harshest environment, the right leader with the right skills, team, and political support can make a difference. Performance can go from terrible starting points to promising results.
Here are five lessons I hope Metro’s new leaders will heed:
1. Track down and make public as much bad news as you can, right at the beginning. You need to know the bad news as well as the good. A complete diagnosis is crucial to a clear-sighted vision and a strategy for reform.
A baseline review of CFSA at the time I stepped in showed worse performance than anyone had expected. Although at first the news was intimidating, it sharpened our team's focus and ignited creative problem-solving. My counterpart in another state told me that understanding just how bad things were in his agency left him “a different person,” one far more ready to try dramatic change.
Grim though it may be as a starting point, the full truth is essential for tracking progress. Far too often, an entering leader’s instinct is to touch up the bad news, which only makes it harder to succeed. It is hard enough to clear the real bar, let alone one that is artificially raised.
2. Interrupt the vicious cycle of external political attacks and inside defensiveness.
In three troubled child welfare agencies I studied, outside politics and inside fear typically combined to perpetuate failure. Agency staff responded to a harsh political climate of blame by “hunkering down.” They feared decision-making and avoided gathering information that could uncover problems. But those reactions didn’t improve performance, they ensured another round of the cycle.
Successful turnaround leaders interrupt the cycle in unexpected ways -- being active where others expect them to be passive, and embracing accountability where others expect defensiveness. They draw their erstwhile critics into active problem-solving, for example, or take public responsibility for specific goals even when they don’t have to. And they either blend sophisticated political skills with a keen sense of the agency’s internal dynamics or pick a close colleague to fill in their blind spots.
3. Build a team that values accountability without finger-pointing.
When problems are systemic, blaming individuals won’t solve anything. It takes a mature and seasoned group to resist shifting fault to a colleague when under siege, especially if years of organizational history have engrained the pattern of blaming before you are blamed.
Successful turnaround leaders choose a senior team that can handle this pressure and promote essential principles by modeling them. For example, they reward honesty about problems and regard failure as a chance to learn, not an occasion for fear, anger, or cover-up.
4. Measure constantly.
All the successful turnaround leaders I’ve consulted were curious about data, eager to understand metrics, and committed to building data-driven organizations. They took measurement personally, closely tracked key numbers, and dug into agency “report cards.” Without such a leader, staff easily lose track of performance again, and even a short lapse can mean missing warning signs of dangerous problems.
5. Don’t expect the job to be fun.
Too many leaders believe the myth that if they were doing it right, successful leadership will be a joyous experience and lead to high internal morale and outside praise.
Turnarounds don’t work that way. The new leader of a troubled agency will be a target for fury built up over years by staff and stakeholders. Change itself will create turmoil. Senior staff unity may crack under the strain, putting the leader in the middle of bitter disputes.
Leaders who take charge in tough times don’t have the luxury of behaving badly while it’s difficult and hoping to show their better sides when leading becomes easier.
Olivia Golden, an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, led the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency from 2001-2004. She chronicles that experience in her 2009 book Reforming Child Welfare.