Reflections on Leading Civilians

April 27, 2020 | By CAPT. RICHARD A. PAQUETTE Deputy Division Chief, Defense Logistics Agency

BY CAPT. RICHARD A. PAQUETTE Deputy Division Chief, Defense Logistics Agency

As a career naval officer and proud Supply Corps officer, it has been my distinct honor to lead and develop the incredible junior officers and enlisted personnel entrusted to me. My training and immersion in leadership at the Naval Academy and numerous service schools have been further honed by officers more senior to me and the senior enlisted leaders I have served alongside.

I am very confident in my ability to mold a work center, division, or department manned by Sailors into a cohesive and high performing team. However, a funny thing happens as Supply Corps officers approach and attain the rank of commander. Barring a sea-duty assignment, your leadership challenges pivot from mainly enlisted and junior officers to career civil servants. While we have all worked with civil servants in the completion of our duties, actually being their boss and leader is an entirely new and oftentimes foreign environment for a Supply Corps officer.

While the Navy and the Supply Corps have schools for virtually every scenario and technical problem set, no formal military officer focused schools currently exist to help understand how to lead, manage, and win with the non-uniformed civilian workforce. Some courses are available on timekeeping and rudimentary human resource (HR) information, but absent any comprehensive instruction, we are forced to rely upon good judgement, luck, and guesswork in this new role.

We are all high performing and motivated individuals, so we usually make good decisions, learn from our mistakes, and generally get the picture right and the mission done regardless of the circumstances. Yet a question remains: how much more productive and effective might you and your organization be if you were equipped with a more robust skill tool kit to excel in your new role?

I know the Supply Corps, to its credit, is working toward such a course for lieutenant commanders. In the interim, I am attempting to put my 10-plus years of experience leading hundreds of civil servants lessons learned down on paper for all to use, discard, accept, or question. I am under no illusion that I know everything, or anything close to that, in how to lead our civil servant workforce. I have made as many mistakes as I have had successes in this area, but what I hope is that my commentary makes you think, my examples lend some clarity, and that this article helps to sharpen the Supply Corps desire to complete a more formalized training for our future leaders.

Rely on your Deputy:

One topic I’d like to address right up front is the deputy. When first assigned to lead a civilian organization you may also get the advice/guidance to rely on your deputy or civilian boss. While this relationship is certainly important, and in most cases it should be a positive and beneficial situation, it should not in and of itself overwrite your need to be a tremendous leader of civilians on your own.

In addition, in a low performing or challenged organization, the civilian deputy/boss may be as much a part of the problem as the solution. You, as the outsider, may very well have the best ability to shape events, identify and correct organizational flaws, and build the bonds between the workforce and the leadership team that may be stretched or broken.

An observation of mine and others, is that federal civil servants are often promoted for being the best, technically, at what they do. While many of these promotions work out in the long run, there isn’t as much focus placed on civilian managers being the best leader for their respective organization. As such, you should make every opportunity to develop and mentor these new civilian leaders. They will be, by and large, much more proficient in the technical aspects of the organization you will be leading, but you may be the rock your team will depend on for leadership.

I say the above not to slight, in the least, the tremendous capability, knowledge and energy that very likely will be present in the senior civilians in your organization. Very early on, you need to sit down with them and ensure you understand them, where they are coming from, and receive their input on where the organization is headed.

If you are the leader, this is a good time to discuss your values and vision. Set a tone for your relationship and build the chemistry that must exist for your team to thrive. I have always pictured myself to be a bit of a chameleon in this role. I try to fill my bosses/ deputies weak spots and have them fill in mine. For example, if your boss is tremendous at the technical side of the job, but lacks a great personal touch, jump into that arena with both feet. If your deputy is a skilled manager of the union representative, but not great at organization, take on this role and let him/her run the union coordination piece. The key is for both of you to be aligned and mutually support one another, anything less becomes toxic over time.

Management by Walking Around:

I know this is an overused and tired phrase that we get bombarded with in nearly all leadership development courses. The reason for such a heavy dose of this term is because it works! Get up from behind your desk, stop reading email, get out of your office, and visit your people where they are working. Take away the aura of the front office, command suite, or any similar construct and walk your spaces. The best way to get to know your people is to talk to them. Observe the photos and items on their desks. Where did they go to school, family photos, hobbies and the like? Each person on your team is unique and diverse in a hundred different ways. Understand them, their motivations, their desires, and their wants.

The more you engage with your folks the more comfortable you become in this role. It isn’t natural for me, but I forced myself to do it and got better with it over time. One thing I tried to figure out was each member of my team’s baseline. I call this my “bright eyes” check. People that are motivated and invested in their position tend to show such enthusiasm through their eyes. Leadership is far more art than science, and I found that when I spent enough time with my civilian employees I learned their personal motivation mid-point. Higher than this and good things were happening to them in their lives, lower than that and perhaps not all was great in their world.

It is always easy to ask someone about what you expect to be good news. For example, “you look super pumped up today.” Then they tell you their son/daughter just got into their first choice school for college. If you know your people well enough you can state the specific school; or are they following in your employee’s footsteps as a Terp/Aggie/ Wildcat etc.? The key here is that you recognized an employee over the baseline and you celebrated that achievement with them.

The far harder scenario is when employees are clearly below their baseline. Hopefully, you may have some information from your middle managers, division chief, etc. to help clue you in as to the “why.” Most folks do not want to have hefty, difficult, personal discussions in the workplace, in the open. Some things I learned to do is bring them a can of their favorite soft drink, a cup of coffee, or a piece of candy/sweet you know they enjoy and say “looks like you could use a little positive bump today/a little pick me up. How are you doing?” Oftentimes they will say fine and that is okay, but sometimes you will get much more. If it is intensely personal stuff, you might suggest a walk with them, or to step into your office to protect their feelings, issues, privacy, etc.

The most important aspect of this entire discussion is do your folks trust you? Have you earned that most precious of a commodity: their faith in you as a leader? A very powerful connection between you and your teammate to be sure, but one that can be lost forever in a heartbeat if it is abused.

Open Door:

Another extremely pervasive term, one following very closely on the trust discussion above, is your open door policy. Every employee I brought onto my team, over my civilian leadership tours, I made it a point to tell them that I had an open door policy. They could come in at any time, for any reason, and talk to me about anything. I did encourage them to use their chain of command but did not want to stifle any feedback or concerns. I also told my senior leaders that I would share what I could with them when such meetings occurred. As with all such one on one sessions, many of the details discussed could vary widely based on perspective. So temper your desire to react, agree with or confirm some of the issues that may be raised behind an open door until you get more feedback, information, and facts.

I have observed that some leaders claim an open door but it never really is. Either it is physically shut or an employee seeking a sit down doesn’t feel welcome to insert themselves into your daily schedule. Make sure your front office team knows your expectations for such a pop up event. Hold the calls and attempt to reschedule any conflicts to allow the employee to talk with you when you are ready. Two things I do when an employee comes to talk with me is I shut off my computer monitor so my eyes don’t wander to my screen when new email comes in, and I place my desk phone in a forward all calls mode. I want to ensure that I give 100% of my attention to the employee sitting across the desk from me.

In many cases the employee will only want to talk. They may even state they aren’t expecting any action on your part. This is always a hypersensitive topic, so know your organizations standards and policies should such issues as sexual harassment, misconduct, or other possible red flags are raised. While it is important for you to be there for the employee, you still have an obligation to your organization as a leader to do what is right and expected by them. If you are asked to take an action, follow through. If you can’t, explain why not. I also made sure to reach back out to folks who came to me in such times with a quick note expressing my gratitude for their trust in me, summarizing the issue and what I will be doing. This follow up is critical in my opinion, validating that the employee was right in coming to you and bringing the matter to your attention.

Very often, your biggest gains as a leader within an organization will not be accolades received from higher headquarters or customers, personal decorations you receive, or praise from other senior leaders on your team. It will be the individual employees telling one another “Capt. Paquette really cares about us and you should bring this issue to him.” When employees have that level of trust in their leadership team, only good things can happen.

Union Workforce:

If you are sent to an organization that operates under a union, you need to get smart, quickly, so read your union agreement carefully and meet early in your tenure with the union representative and steward. While you may be a senior leader accustomed to making “command decisions,” with a union such actions take a little more time and coordination. Most union leaders are good people, but they are coming at issues impacting your organization from a very different angle. Bring them in when issues arise, seek their input and explain the “why” to them. At the end of the day, you still can make the decision, but having union support makes any solutions to challenges much easier to implement.

I was very fortunate in one organization to have a very strong civilian deputy who had done a lot of great work building a relationship with the local union representative. She was invited to senior staff meetings, even had a part at an offsite and invited her to our town hall events. This is certainly a higher level of engagement than I would have planned for, but it worked very well in my organizations favor.

The biggest takeaway I learned from leading a union workforce is that anything that may impact the conditions of employment: moving desks/offices, new parking spot assignments, breaks and lunch periods, fitness program, use/lose, and of course any disciplinary actions must all be worked closely with the union. It took me quite a while to grasp the need to route, what I considered very insignificant actions, by the union representative. Make sure you speak with your organizational attorneys on such matters, speak with other leaders who are supported by the same union and get their lessons learned, tips, and feedback on how they engage with the union.

Recognition:

As military leaders we are very used to, and comfortable with, writing up our Sailors for medals, letters of commendation, Sailor of the quarter, etc. You would be amazed at how few civilian leaders do the same for their people. I am not sure why this is the case, perhaps related to the lack of a solid leadership development track for civil servants, but you may be the one who gets a solid recognition and awards program moving.

First things first: read your organizations award instruction. What is possible? Who can approve? What are the limits on dollar value, time off, frequency of recognition, etc.? In many cases simply writing up an employee for an award gets them recognition as other units in your larger group may not take the time to nominate anyone. There are also a host of ways to recognize your people outside of your official awards instruction. I used the Federal Executive Board to nominate individuals and teams for well-deserved recognition and submitted names to DoD and SECNAV levels for consideration. Do your branch heads, division chiefs, etc. have a requirement in their performance evaluation to submit at least one organizational wide nominee per quarter or a written statement as to why no one was deserving? Making such recognition part of your leadership team’s performance objectives ensures it remains important to them and not “extra” work.

Even at the state, county, and city levels, there are a host of awards available to nominate deserving individuals. Please make sure your attorneys are consulted before you submit to any non-federal entities to be sure you are covered ethically.

The most important part of awards and recognition is to understand your team and what sort of recognition they desire. Some want a bright spotlight and others want to be left in the background. There are many avenues available to a leader to recognize outstanding performance. Far too few civilian employees receive medals for their work. These are often beautifully framed and can be a tremendous way to recognize your very best. If you know your people well enough, contact a spouse or significant other to be present during the presentation. How you recognize your best shows the entire team what the standard is and how willing you are to go the extra mile to demonstrate your appreciation.

While big, splashy events like medals, letters of commendation, and employee of the quarter selections are vitally important, in many ways a simple “great job” or “well done” means as much to so many. Too often leaders take for granted the hard work put in by their employees. I call these thank you drivebys, either in person (preferred) or via phone/email if the team is very spread out. A key component of this style of recognition is to challenge mid-level managers to highlight such accomplishments to me. It is powerful feedback to a member of your team to tell them “your work on that spreadsheet really helped me understand the gravity of issue, XXX. I really appreciate all the effort you put into it.”

These thank-you moments don’t have to be for the largest items, but something that an individual on your team put a great deal of work into or struggled with but got it done. If you know your team well you can state: “I know you worked late all last week to meet this short suspense, missing your son/daughters XXX. I just wanted to let you know how important your finished product was to the success of our mission.”

Putting such sacrifice into personal engagement is a hallmark of a great leader in my opinion. There are hundreds of things that employees may have to work around or push off to support the team and mission. Allowing such dedication to go unnoticed and unrecognized is a recipe for disaster.

As with all forms of recognition, always keep an eye out for timely and appropriate awards for your team. Delaying a monetary award for six months so it lines up with performance appraisal bonuses detracts from the linkage of the action by the employee to the reward conferred.

On a similar note, a very high dollar award for a relatively low impact event is disproportionate and may deflate others on your team who worked equally hard or harder.

Finally, make sure you speak with direct supervisors before you nominate or present an award to an employee. I have learned that you often get a far different face than the immediate supervisor. When the boss shows up the employee is motivated and engaged, but after you depart the workstation, the employee may revert to low performance, poor attitude, etc.

Hiring:

Government hiring rules are complex and oftentimes burdensome because in the end we are making, potentially, permanent selections for our organization. With no formal schools to train military officers on this incredibly important task, it is easy to let the other senior civilians handle such matters. My advice would be to not do that. You’d be surprised what you may learn and see if you directly engage in the hiring process. Some organizations are hopelessly lost in hiring friends and family, overlooking qualified candidates due to soft and inherent bias and unwillingness to take a risk, even on a developmental position. You will see aversions to individuals with disabilities, outsiders (both organizationally and geographically), veterans and military spouses. There may even be bias toward age, gender, looks, sexual orientation and the like. I have seen and heard many questionable things in quite a few of the many hiring actions and interviews I have been a part of. While not all organizations struggle with such challenges, you will never know if you don’t get involved.

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Most importantly, for jobs that are direct reports to you, critical to your organization, and the like, be directly involved. Review the request for personnel action, review the resumes, sit in the interview panels and lead the hiring action. You are building a team and climate, culture, diversity and mutual fit are all important benchmarks for you, as the leader, to consider when growing your team. Your senior leaders, local HR representative, and counsel can all provide good guidance to you in this process. Make sure you take good notes, because as important as it is to select the right person, it is just as important to be able to explain the “why not” to an individual not selected, especially if that individual is from your organization.

Retention:

Even in a government office job, it is okay to have fun. Within organizational guidelines, relax dress codes on Friday; wear sports jerseys or college sweatshirts, have cake and sweets for significant events: birthdays, marriages, pregnancies, farewells and retirements. Decorate for the holidays, allow your folks to personalize their workspaces and do what you can to ensure the work location/ office is clean, bright and welcoming with furniture, photos, paint, stencils/signs, etc. As all of us who have been afloat can attest to, you can tell a lot about a ship’s crew from how their vessel looks as you walk along the pier.

In addition, make sure your front office and others in your organization treat visitors warmly and with courtesy. That first impression is important on so many levels. I have had multiple new hires tell me that they said yes to our job offer based on how they were treated on arrival to the interview. A simple “good morning” or “hello” go a long way in today’s hyper-connected world.

Flexibility:

In today’s business environment, many organizations are rapidly increasing the flexibility offered to the employees to accommodate the busy lives we all lead. As with most HR processes do your homework and understand what is allowed. Encourage your employees and managers to use the authorities granted to benefit both the individual and the organization. Telework, flexiplace, compressed work schedules, gym/fitness time, adjustments to core hours, flex time and other options are available in many federal workplaces. In my experience, sometimes organizations shy away from certain flexible solutions due to a bad experience. I challenge them to hold folks accountable. If someone is abusing a workplace rule, hold them accountable. Don’t kill the fitness program or telework for all because of the actions of one.

A good safety tip is that what you do for one, you need to be prepared to do for all. So be careful how much accommodation and flexibility you afford an individual. If you are not prepared to do one thing for others it is never a good idea to do so for anyone, even a top performer.

Exit Interviews:

Inevitably, people move on from your organization. While it is certainly important to meet with all your newly arrived folks to welcome them to your team, the exit interview is critical to seeing how well your group is doing. Exit interviews should be part of your checkout process. Don’t leave it to chance that an employee will give you the feedback you are seeking. Always do more listening than talking during an exit interview. If the employee is leaving for other than good reasons you may hear some tough comments. Don’t react and certainly don’t argue their points. Do thank them for their comments, good and bad, and let them know they are welcome to provide any other comments and observations to you in the future. Most importantly, share what you can with your leaders and allow the feedback to help you improve as a team. In one exit interview I had a very high performing employee moving on. When I told him how highly regarded he was and what I thought his top line could be in our organization he was shocked. He never received such praise from his immediate supervisor, even though his supervisor thought very highly of him. This lack of communication cost the team the services of a dedicated and hardworking employee. The attrition could have been avoided with more timely feedback and praise for his outstanding work.

Discipline

Your legal/counsel and HR representative should be your lifelines to managing the harder side of the business with federal civilians, namely discipline. If you are having an issue, or believe you are having an issue, talk with them. Bringing them in too late is far worse than too early.

It is important to weigh how employees are recognized with the issue of a disciplinary action pending. Too often organizations will process a cash or time off award, issue someone an acceptable rating or allow for selection for a special program while working through a disciplinary action. Such recognition causes problems for the government should an employee grieve any future punishment handed down.

When someone isn’t performing resist the temptation to move them. Too many government offices tend to recycle low performers instead of challenging them to improve. While a change of scenery or supervisor may be helpful in some situations, it shouldn’t be a pattern for an employee. Passing off a problem employee to another leader isn’t a solution and it would be best to handle the situation head on.

When dealing with low performing employees, it is a good idea to document all of the interactions. Summary memos or emails are a good way to cover the issues discussed and any directions. These records come in handy should things progress up the disciplinary chain.

Most government employees, like Sailors, will respond to criticism and improve their performance. There are some that will attempt to avoid accepting responsibility for their actions and they will blame everyone, including you, for singling them out, treating them unfairly, and perhaps raise more significant complaints along an EEO channel. Don’t let any of this dissuade you from doing what is right.

Summary:

There is a lot to digest above, I hope it was helpful or at least thought provoking. Take these opportunities to lead to heart and push the envelope. Have some fun, advance your shared mission forward, and take care of your people. Be the boss that people want to work for. Hearing the words “we miss you” or “the place isn’t the same without you” should be as warming to your heart and professional sense of accomplishment as any end of tour award or military recognition.