by Brian Weberg
We don't seem to hear it as much as we used to, but the claim that government would be better if "run like a business" still lurks in political campaigns and in criticisms of government inefficiencies (we even used it in a Thicket post a few years ago). Today I was reminded of yet another reason why this prescription so thoroughly misses the mark. In particular, government leaders--and especially those new to the job--simply do not have the luxury of time or resources available to their private sector counterparts to learn the levers of leadership and to deliver results.
My "ahah" came while listening in on a "teleforum" featuring Patricia Wheeler, an executive coach at The Levin Group. Wheeler summarized a recent market study conducted by the Institute of Executive Development that examined "the transitions that top executives make into and through organizations, and the road blocks that can occur in the process..." The results have interesting implications for the challenges that face legislative leaders and for the impending replacement of baby boomer executives at state legislative staff agencies.
Here are some of the findings:
- 72% of survey respondents reported that internal candidates hired into executive roles need more than three months to get up to speed and at least one-fourth need six months.
- Only 11% reported that orientation programs were effective at helping a new executive to be effective and fewer than one-third said that mentoring was useful.
- Respondents (68%) identified "lack of interpersonal and leadership skills" as the primary cause for under performance by new executives.
My first reaction was to reflect on the "first 100 days" yardstick we use to measure Presidential effectiveness and the fact that many state legislative sessions are over in 90 days or less. We expect our new government leaders to produce results starting on their first day on the job. Three months to get up to speed? Forget about it.
I'm not aware of any legislatures that offer their new leaders or staff directors a formal orientation to the job (but I bet many chief clerks do something like an orientation on procedure and presiding) and mentoring is used, if sometimes informally, in some legislatures. Are these efforts any more effective than reported in the study for private sector leaders? I hope so.
And what about the high correlation between under performance and lack of interpersonal and leadership skills? I think it's pretty clear that especially for legislative staff, we reward and teach technical skills but spend precious little time promoting the "soft" skills. As one of the teleforum presenters said, for leaders "the soft skills are the hard skills."
What is the most effective strategy, according to the study, for ramping up the effectiveness of your new leaders? Well, executive coaching, of course. Now, that may sound like a predetermined study conclusion given the source, and it may also be good advice. I hope all the businesses in America run out and hire some coaches for their new executives. I doubt, however, that many government leaders will be able to join the parade. Imagine the headlines.