What do Senior Leaders in the Federal Government, Members of Congress and Carp Have in Common? new

In my role supporting Federal Government agencies trying to build leadership at all levels I often find myself discussing the differences between effective and ineffective leaders. Of course, there are many different opinions about the traits and qualities that separate the good from the bad when it comes to leaders in the Federal Government, and there is probably no single set of competencies and behaviors that completely discriminate between the two.

Personally, I believe an often-overlooked element of effective leadership is external awareness. External awareness is “the ability to identify and integrate key external factors into daily work activities.” Often, when we talk about effective leadership the discussions focus on building internal relationships, inspiring others, and building the next generation of leaders. But, in looking at recent data on Congressional approval and data from OPM’s 2014 Federal Viewpoints Survey (FEVS), the importance of external awareness seems to be rising.

One key element of external awareness is the leader’s ability and willingness to understand and keep up-to-date on trends that affect the organization and shape stakeholders’ views. According to the FEVS results, perceptions of senior leaders’ effectiveness, communication, and connection to the organization have steadily declined since 2011. For members of Congress, a recent Rasmussen Report found that 80% of voters feel most members listen more to political party leaders than their constituents, and a previous poll found that as many as 62% of voters believe their legislators have lost touch with voters. The data for both groups of leaders suggest that leaders aren’t aware of the external realities of their roles.

This is where the carp comes in. Celebrated author, futurist and physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku tells a story about his childhood visits to a Japanese Tea Garden:

When I was a child, I used to visit the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. I would spend hours fascinated by the carp, who lived in a very shallow pond just inches beneath the lily pads, just beneath my fingers, totally oblivious to the universe above them.

I would ask myself a question only a child could ask: what would it be like to be a carp? What a strange world it would be! I imagined that the pond would be an entire universe, one that is two-dimensional in space. The carp would only be able to swim forwards and backwards, and left and right. But I imagined that the concept of “up”, beyond the lily pads, would be totally alien to them. (From Hyperspace and a Theory of Everything)

For leaders, being like the carp, only aware of adjacent issues – focused on the obvious dimensions of right, left, forward and backward, while failing to account for what may be just above the surface of the water, can be a powerful, but harmful temptation. With the barrage of pressures leaders face each day it can be easy (and rewarding) to tackle the immediate challenges. But, the best leaders know how to distribute their attention between near term, internal challenges, and the larger external realities that ultimately affect their organization.

Given the many demands on Federal leaders, how can they improve their external awareness without neglecting other responsibilities?

  • Identify Your Stakeholders AGAIN: Formal stakeholder identification processes can be rather long and complex. The problem with that is that stakeholder groups – not just their views – change. You aren’t identifying stakeholders for one project, you’re looking to find out who is invested in your organization’s outcomes as an ongoing concern. Spend time re-evaluating who your stakeholders are and what they want, but don’t get caught up in a lengthy, formal process. Focus on what has changed in who your new stakeholders are, who is no longer a stakeholder, and the implications thereof. Get to know the Millennials, for example. Expect that the whole community you serve is ever changing.
  • Read What Your Stakeholders Read: Don’t assume what you usually read for news and information is shaping your stakeholders’ views. Find out what your stakeholders are reading, and make sure you read it, too. Keep up with your stakeholders’ professional organization newsletters. You don’t need to read every article, but skim the headlines for anything that may change your perceptions and assumptions. For example, many of my clients read Federal Times, so I do, too, but only the articles relevant to my customers. No one has time to read everything.
  • Use Social Media Efficiently: According to an IBM study, social media will represent 30% of data available to Government organizations by 2015. Leaders don’t need a Facebook page, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what’s trending online. From #BringBackOurGirls to hashtags used by political activists (e.g., #tcot), social media often indicates what’s about to happen as much as it discusses what has already come to pass. Social media has been used in coups to dog rescues by politicians. Don’t waste hours a day on social media, but know what’s trending and what you need to do about it.
  • Put it in Context: Being in the know isn’t useful unless you know what to do about it. Have a plan in place to address external changes that affect your stakeholders. Identify who you would need on your team now, so you are prepared in the future. The focus shouldn’t be on taking immediate action unless the situation is emergent. The focus should be on having the right discussion to put the information into context as it applies to your stakeholders and organization, as in many cases the “action” is communications and further exploration.

What do you do as a leader to maintain external awareness? Do you have techniques for achieving balance between internal and external focus?

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