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Article October 31st, 2016

Leadership lessons – from the deck to DC

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Scott Gould: Different sectors drive and emphasise different qualities of leadership

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Scott Gould: In the modern military you need to be much more of a persuader and an inspirer

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Scott Gould: Government will test you in ways that you hadn’t predicted

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"Public, private and non-profit sectors place different demands on their leaders," says Scott Gould - and he should know.

A glance through his résumé reveals three separate stints in public service, his third as deputy secretary of US Department of Veterans Affairs; an eclectic array of senior private sector positions; and 26 years in the United States Navy and the United States Naval Reserve.

Although his down-to-earth and relaxed personal approach belies this rich seam of top-level experience, it is also clear that serving at the intersection of the military and in the public and private sectors has left him with deep insights about leadership and the difficult art of getting things done.

"While the core of effective leadership remains the same, the sectors drive and emphasise different qualities of leadership," he reflects. "Good leaders in all sectors have strong conceptual abilities, the skill to allocate resources effectively, and a strong moral core - something that people can believe in and that their followers can trust."

But there are still some traits that are necessary for a specific sector - life in the military is very different from life in the boardroom or departmental HQ, for example. "In the military, the discipline imposed by an environment where you could lead people into harm's way exacts a different standard," he explains.

"In the corporate world there is clarity about the objective function.  But in the public sector the demand to manage in a multi-stakeholder environment - and to account for the widest possible range of concerns and issues - takes you in another direction entirely. There, you have to work towards socially preferred outcomes as opposed to optimising a single objective, and so the leader is pulled in the direction of communications, consultation, listening, and working with stakeholder groups to find compromise."

Naval know-how

During his service in the US Navy, Gould served at sea aboard the guided missile destroyer Richard E. Byrd and then, as a naval intelligence reservist, he was recalled to active duty in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The reality of leadership in military service is somewhat different to the impression created in the movies. The notion that in the military environment “officers issue orders and the troops obey” masks the deep trust that is developed between ranks in a military unit and the many acts of persuasion, inspiration, training and personal example that create it.

"In the modern military - an all volunteer force - you need to be much more of a persuader, an inspirer and someone focused on leading people, which is very different from the traditional top-down model. That said, the military relies on obedience to manage effectively in ultimate situations like fighting a fire, dealing with an operational emergency, or combat.  For these situations, the military inculcates hierarchical control and an expectation of obedience that you don't find in the public or private sectors. But I wouldn't want to oversell that. In the modern military today there is plenty of persuasion and convincing that you do as part of the leadership process."

Asked why this is the case, he cites the sheer complexity of modern military operations. Take the US Department of Defense, for example, which is one of the largest organisations in the world. "When I try to manage effectively there - or anywhere in the public sector environment - I like to issue them an imaginary compass to establish a quick and ready reference point," Gould reveals.

"On this compass they need to be keenly aware of the people they lead south in the chain of command; they need to understand their obligations north in the chain of command. They also have to be thinking deeply about the stakeholder community and customers they serve - east, if you will; and finally, west to include the other agencies that could influence their mission. Managers in this environment find their way by consulting all four points of the compass. It is complex and it is constantly changing. It takes real discipline for people not to say 'to heck with those folks over there, I'm going to do my own thing'."

The governance of government

When he was serving as deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, Gould was the chief operating officer of the federal government's second largest department, responsible for a nationwide system of healthcare services, benefits programmes and national cemeteries for America's veterans and their dependants. Yet this was by no means his first taste of the federal government. In the Clinton administration he served at both the Commerce and Treasury Departments, as well as a year as a White House Fellow. What had changed in government in the intervening period?

"I think it was both the same and profoundly different," he replies. "It's the same in terms of the fractured Congressional control, the rules-based approach, and the way we manage human capital. But it was profoundly different in two respects. The environment is now so contentious and the 24-hour media now makes it so difficult for a leader to work through problems, particularly when they don't know what the right next thing is to do. They are trying to think their way through a tough problem and gather information, but the media cycle does not give you much time - so you have to really go on instinct."

The second factor, he adds, is more positive: the slow penetration of technology into the machinery of government. "BCG analysis shows that governments around the world are adopting IT as a means to serve their citizens more effectively," he points out. "It's lagging but it is definitely happening. It was certainly perceptively different to when I first went into government in the mid-1990s."

However, in terms of his own education about government, he cites his stint as a White House Fellow as having had the biggest personal impact. "I went to the White House for the first time expecting to see the equivalent of an NBA fast break," he recalls. "But what I found instead was a very human process of good leaders - in some cases great leaders - just encountering massively difficult problems and trying to do their best to solve them on behalf of the public. This experience made me realise that whatever your level of preparation, government will test you in ways that you hadn't predicted. This was true in the 1990s, is still true today, and I think will be true for the new team coming on board whoever wins the election this year."

The road ahead

Gould, who is now juggling a range of different roles in the private sector, nonetheless maintains close links - and opinions - on all things federal. He pinpoints three reforms that would improve performance. "The first is the need for human capital reform," he says. "We do not do leadership and talent well enough, and this needs to change. The second is the budget process itself. We issue continuing resolutions that are essentially a way of kicking the can down the road, and this prevents us from dealing with epic issues such as infrastructure investment and mandatory spending. And the third is acquisitions. Half of government is delivered by the private sector, yet the acquisition process is a very poor means of ensuring the federal government gets value for its dollar - so we need to reform the acquisition system as well."

Whether or not these changes are actually implemented, however, is somewhat doubtful. "Unfortunately, these issues have not been mentioned in the election campaign and so they also lack the Legitimacy element of the Public Impact Fundamentals. This means that the chances that a new President - if he or she wanted to - will move on them are inhibited."

Gould, though, remains an optimist at heart. With this in mind, his message to those considering a career in public service, or who are on the junior rungs of the ladder, reflects his deep faith in government's innate ability to do good. "The first thing I would do is congratulate them on choosing a career where they can address the issues that matter and help change the world," he concludes.

"The practical advice I would give them would be to look for a good boss and, when they land that first job, to pick something and do it quickly and do it well. They should then go back to the person who hired them and ask if there is anything else they would like done. This simple formula would get them recognised very quickly and probably result in a coaching or mentoring relationship. In time, they will be able to take their own initiative and make the contribution that they've always dreamed of."

Lessons of leadership:

  • Good leaders in all sectors have strong conceptual abilities, the skill to allocate resources effectively, and a strong moral core - something that people can believe in and that their followers can trust

  • In the military, the discipline imposed by an environment where you could lead people into harm's way exacts a different standard

  • In the corporate world there is clarity about the objective function

  • In the public sector you have to work towards socially preferred outcomes, and so the leader is pulled in the direction of communications, consultation, listening, and working with stakeholder groups to find compromise

  • New recruits to government should look for a good boss and, when they land that first job, they should pick something and do it quickly and do it well. They should then go back to the person who hired them and ask if there is anything else they would like done

 

 FURTHER READING

  • The power of collaboration in government. Stephanie Brown is on a mission to change the way US federal employees work together. She tells us about her work leading the Performance Improvement Council's Collaboration Studio

  • Women leadership: accelerating the ascent. Dr Leila Hoteit explains what more can be done to help more women into leadership roles in the Middle East

  • DC despatch. While there is much that unites the policymakers of London and Washington, DC, very few among them have worked in both cities' corridors of power. Kate Josephs, however, is an exception. She tells us about her experiences driving performance improvement in both governments - and how she got there

  • Mission possible: creating a smarter and better US government. Improving the effectiveness of public policies and helping rebuild public trust in government are the twin priorities facing new President of The Volcker Alliance, Tom Ross. But he's not one to flinch from a challenge…

  • Winds of change. Few understand the mechanics of US elections better than Matthew Dowd. A veteran of both sides of the campaign trail, he tells us about his experiences and why change is coming to America…

  • A doorway to delivery. Kevin Donahue has spent his career seeking to harness the power of data to improve government services. He tells Adrian Brown why good data is not an end in itself, but rather an opportunity to achieve better citizen outcomes

  • Window on the workforce. To preserve and enhance the public impact of their organisations, government leaders must dramatically improve how they recruit, train and manage talent, says Agnès Audier

  • Tapping the talent. Organisations from the public and private sector have long sought to attract the best and brightest - and Indonesia is no exception, says Edwin Utama. But more needs to be done to attract the best talent into government service

  • Labour pains. A high-functioning workforce cannot be taken for granted, says Danny Werfel. He explains why a period of greater investment in skills and training will lead to stronger government performance in the US

  • Millennials and the future of government. Many graduates might be tempted by a higher salary or perks from the private sector, but Virginia Hill, President of Young Government Leaders, says public service still holds substantial allure

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