Technology made the news in Fedland in 2013 and not always in a way officials could brag about it. How officials handled the development and rollout of technology based digital solutions affecting citizens was much in the public eye in the last few months of the year. There are managerial as well as technological challenges in all departments and agencies.
At the end of November, researcher @jondeiss tweeted a link to his public Facebook page, where he sometimes shares what he is doing on his visits to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). He wrote of an unnamed NARA employee: “overheard yet another soon-to-retire (please) archivist saying #AOTUS doesn’t understand them because he is a librarian.”
Jonathan went on to give his take on the matter. I’ve shared mine here at Nixonara over the last few years as I’ve written about the agency and about AOTUS David S. Ferriero, whom I call the Big Dude. I like, respect, and admire David.
I look at agency heads not just as being in charge, which they are, but as having employees in their care. I am lucky that I have gotten to know Ferriero in person, not just a remote figure whose blog I read. In my view, on both counts, David is the right person to lead NARA in a much needed Transformation effort.
A few weeks after Jonathan tweeted about Ferriero, I saw the authors of a NARA December 20 blog post about change in the agency use the terms “enemies” and “adversaries” in a quote from Machiavelli. An official in the agency’s learning and development unit reached back to a time long gone by. He quoted from The Prince in pointing to why change is difficult. Officials in the NARA Office of Innovation cited his comment as a pithy reflection of change management challenges. But I found it jarring in a blog post that included quotes from others about staying positive.
I support the Big Dude’s Transformation efforts, which are long overdue. But I do so as a supporter and occasional critic, not merely as a cheerleader. I believe Ferriero genuinely looks at communications and feedback as Charlene Li and Sanyin Siang do–with real openness to learning from critics as much as from supporters. I find that admirable. It is rare in Washington.
Some of my friends within NARA say Transformation has failed. Others view it as stalled.
I see the agency’s change initiatives as having faced challenges. But I believe there is the potential and capacity to correct course as needed and to move forward. I don’t worry about raising questions at my blog about the agency Ferriero heads. I trust him. When I put up my end of year post, “Theme of the year? Capacity,” David is one of many people I had in mind. He has awesome capacity.
I do not buy in to the “blame the employees” narrative for which officials sometimes reach in Washington. Change management is difficult and the National Archives has struggled with it under previous administrations. Managerial insularity, as well as failure to understand how internal and external stakeholders viewed the agency also was a problem in the NARA of old. So, too, risk aversion and conservatism and, yes, at times, a “stab in the back” management culture.
In the past, during Allen Weinstein’s tenure as Archivist, NARA relied on the William Bridges change management model in selling the Electronic Records Archive concept to employees. That was a tricky model to use–some of its framing is top-down, reductionist, and condescending, as in the identification of stages of grief. Looking at change that way may make management feel good–but it should not become a crutch that inhibits what managers are trying to accomplish.
The active listening component of the Bridges’ change model has the potential to move change forward, however. Boilerplate management robospeak never works. All advice from outside experts and consultants needs to be considered with exquisite discernment and understanding of what can be applied and what may be rejected as not appropriate. I looked at that in the NARA context in a series of posts here in October about John Kotter, Daniel Goleman, and other authors of books about leading change.
Customization is important. Understanding how employees view change initiatives requires empathy, knowledge of institutional history, and situational awareness. This includes understanding the psychological baggage the employees picked up in the past. And why they sometimes look, in my view understandably so, at newer initiatives through the prism of how past change was marketed and handled. Looking at Transformation from the perspective of those seeking to bring about change is not enough. Empathetic leaders understand this.
Part of managing change requires understanding not just the barriers you yourself inadvertently may be erecting, but the ones that your predecessors did. Most of all, transforming an agency requires being brave and unselfish. Leading from The Big Self, not The Small Self.
Ferriero has written some insightful blog posts at AOTUS blog which show commendable understanding of what Daniel Goleman calls “affiliative leadership.” His recent post on “Passion and Accomplishment” beautifully captured the emotional vibe (which is just as important as the intellectual one) that characterizes the work NARA’s employees do. I praised it last month at my own blog, noting
“Although I’ve seen ritualistic disparagement of ‘the other’ in some professional forums, I’m not a fan of it as a way of building community. What I experienced when I worked for the National Archives was purpose driven organizational bonding. Countering insularity and teaching people of all ranks where they fit in to the larger enterprise always is worth doing as a tool of effective management.”
Around the same time that I was writing about change and management here, the Office of Innovation at NARA (which handles digital engagement), launched a blog. Its introductory blog post sought to examine what encourages and what inhibits innovation and change efforts. Clearly, there was an internal outreach effort. The quotes chosen to share with the public reveal the office’s take on Transformation.
A year ago, in December 2012, I applauded Ferriero for issuing an internal memo signed jointly with Darryl Munsey, president of AFGE Council 260, saying the Union at NARA is a key player in efforts to effect change and to improve morale. Labor-management issues are complicated and perspectives vary, understandably so. Metamessaging is as important as messaging. All members of the senior leadership have a role in it.
This is not the first time I have seen what I find to be Red State, Blue State type political framing to describe or publicize initiatives in which the Office of Innovation has the lead at the National Archives. In February 2013, I pointed to a presentation at MIT by the Chief Innovation Officer of the National Archives, which resulted in a blogger using this image to represent NARA employees who had not bought in to change.
I strongly protested in a post I called “Stewardship.” Does that make me an enemy? Of course not.
From my experience working at NARA and other agencies since 1973, perceptions of an agency head depend on proximity, on the executive team supporting him, on mid-level managers–and on internal messaging, direct and indirect. The number of people with proximity to the chief is small. However, the tone at the top is very important. Metamessages matter greatly, too.
The executives serving an agency head are critically important players here. They need to have a good eye and ear. Everything an executive does is part of the Big Picture. During my 40 years federal service, I’ve seen skilled executives buoy employee morale dragged down by an ill-considered tone at the top. (Big egos, an inflated sense of self, and Messianic complexes have torpedoed more than one change effort in Fedland. One of the reasons I admire Ferriero is that he has none of those characteristics. Far from it!) And I’ve seen ineffective executives sabotage a chief’s good vision through their own tone deafness or insularity.
I’ve been interested in change and technology for a long time because I once was on the leading edge in both areas at the National Archives. As an employee of its Nixon Presidential Materials Project, I helped select for agency procurement the first word processors that officials used as they made the transition from typed to automated output. And I worked on disclosure review of Nixon’s tapes at NARA within the framework of the first presidential records statute to move from the personal property concept to public control of White House records.
I understand how a unit and its employees can come to be perceived as elite. As a Nixon tapes unit team leader, I once was considered part of an elite unit at the National Archives myself. I learned a great deal from mistakes (including my own) as well as from accomplishments. My bosses understood that the NARA Nixon Project colleagues who grumbled about the unit I worked in with the Nixon tapes were not our enemies.
Affiliative leadership works. The Office of Innovation seeks to learn lessons about change. My advice is this: divisiveness does not work. Employees buy in to change at their own pace. It cannot be imposed, especially by an Innovation unit some NARA employees have come to view, fairly or not, as elite and unaccountable. Hearts and minds. Your job is to win them.
No one is a throw-away, even those who don’t immediately jump on the bandwagon. I’m a rescue myself. The one who rescued me is David Ferriero.