William Gray - SSA: A two-way street

William Gray - SSA: A two-way street<@VM>Online Extra Q&A: William Gray

Career highlights

1976: Starts with SSA as a GS-5 claims representative in Sandusky, Ohio.

1986: Named the first manager of SSA's Model District Office and National Help Desk.

1996: Associate commissioner for automation support.

1998: Appointed to the Senior Executive Service.

2000: Assistant deputy commissioner for systems.

2002: Deputy commissioner for systems.

'I value having that interaction, of having people outside the [systems] organization come in and work with us.' -- Bill Gray

Laurie DeWitt

Gray's approach to staff development proves mutually beneficial

One measure of William Gray's success at the Social Security Administration can be found in big-picture results, such as system uptime, a proliferation of online services and 'green' ratings from the Office of Management and Budget.

Another measure can be found in the number of people lined up, at least figuratively, outside his door.

As deputy commissioner for systems, Gray oversees all of SSA's IT, accounting for one-fourth of the agency's operating budget.

Under his leadership, the Office of Systems has maintained stable systems performance and achieved the government's highest rating for secure and reliable computer systems, SSA commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart said. In fiscal 2003, SSA transaction systems had 99.78 percent availability. SSA also attained a 'green' rating from OMB for its progress in all five areas of the President's Management Agenda.

A reason for that success is the work environment that Gray has helped create. He 'instills a spirit of cooperation and teamwork ... providing an environment in which people work to their highest potential,' Barnhart said.

He continually increases training opportunities for technical staff and rotates assignments so employees can effectively support all major system users, she said.

Gray also takes a personal interest in mentoring employees on developmental assignments and participates in the Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program.

'Requests from program participants across the agency for assignments have been so numerous that it has been difficult to juggle schedules to accommodate all those who want to do an assignment in his office,' Barnhart said.

For Gray, mentoring and development programs are win-win propositions.

'I value having that interaction, of having people outside the [systems] organization come in and work with us,' he said. 'You want to try to tap into that energy and creativity to find out what you can do differently that would make this a stronger organization.'

Gray tries to give temporary assignees the chance to show what they can do for the organization. One, for example, was a personnel expert who evaluated overtime patterns. He determined the average amounts of overtime people were using and, more important, compared the use of sick leave with people who worked a lot of overtime.

'By stressing people and having them work so many long hours, were we then turning around and having these people get sick and be off of work?' Gray said. 'It allowed us to make better decisions about how to balance our workload.'

He also rewards the contributions of those he leads. During the past year, Gray recognized 12 teams, comprising nearly 350 employees, for their initiative and dedication to improving the business processes in the Office of Systems, Barnhart said.

Gray started with SSA 28 years ago, and has steadily risen through the ranks, acquiring his management skills along the way. He's adept at building coalitions within SSA and with other federal and state agencies, Barnhart said.

His work was pivotal in 2001 in achieving SSA's goal of making 21 percent of customer services available via the Internet or automated phone service. That includes allowing constituents to apply for benefits, request a Social Security statement and check benefits status. SSA also lets employers register for personal identification numbers and passwords for uploading wage reports.

Gray also shortened the software development life-cycle for Internet applications from 12 months to three months. He reorganized the Office of Systems around program areas and according to key enterprisewide functions.

His biggest project now is overhauling the infrastructure to support automated disability processing, Barnhart said. It's expected to save more than $1.3 billion over the next seven years.

And, she said, he's accepted the challenge of an aggressively compressed timeframe'Gray cut the implementation schedule from seven years to 22 months.Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to move up to the manager level?

Take the best advantage of opportunities that you have at the present time. In management, we're all in particular jobs and making the most of those and taking on responsibilities. Making the most of it really is a good step.

Q: What's the best advice you've received, and from whom?

I received a lot of advice from a lot of people. My dad always told me that your word was your most important asset and that's probably the most important to me, trying to make sure you don't do anything that discredits your integrity because that's what's fundamental in doing business with other people.

Q: Why government service? Your motivation, benefits of it, and why you've stayed with it?

Actually, I really like government service. I chose government service because I like the idea that I would be able to do something positive and would benefit the American citizenry. That was my main motivation and it still motivates me today. When I come to work, I feel like we're doing good things for the American public. I've been with Social Security and the government for 28 years.

Q: How important is mentoring in developing a good manager? Any examples?

I think that's critical. I have been the beneficiary of very good mentors in my career, people who really took an interest in me and helped show me how things were done and I try to do the same for people I work with.

I worked for the late Ted Murcheck, who in his last position served as SSA deputy regional commissioner in Philadelphia. His philosophy was, give people responsibility and back them up as they went forward doing whatever it was that they were being asked to do, but then he would talk with you later and maybe give you some advice about how you could have done it better. He also let you experience things.

One example that was important to me was back in the early '90s, when Legionnaires' disease was discovered at the Western Program Service Center. What they had to do at the Western Program Service Center, and this was about 2,000 people who worked in this building, was evacuate the building overnight. And all the folders, files and people's lives were tied up in that building that they couldn't get into.

Ted was given responsibility for operations for handling this situation, and he asked me to work with him as his assistant on this. And just watching him work through the situation really gave me a lot of insight that you don't necessarily have to know everything. What you have to do is be able to talk with people and find out what the best options are and then go and proceed on those.

I use that same style when I mentor others. In SSA, we have formal mentoring opportunities. We have advanced leadership programs, and I've been the mentor for several leadership candidates. In that process, we try to talk about their interests and where people want to be going and how they can best get there and what kind of things they can do to strengthen themselves so they are in a better position when they get to a leadership role.

One person I mentored has a background in communications and he wanted to try something different. So he worked here in systems looking at opportunities in disaster recovery, how we can improve our disaster recovery. He and I had a series of briefings. We talked about how it feels to come into a strange organization and take on things that are highly technical and rely on the staff and be able to move those decisions forward.

Q: What part does fun play in your work?

I think it's really important, in particular in something like what I do, where I'm asking the people in this organization to be creative and energetic. You have to have a lot of fun. People have to look forward to coming to work and doing their job every day. We have a lot of humor around here. We try to be very supportive of one another. I think having a good working environment where you're not serious all the time is conducive to creativity.

Q: How do you balance work and home life?

I'm not sure I do it as well as I'd like to. One person I admired a lot told me that you have to draw your own lines. Every person has to make a personal decision as to where their line is and you can't step over that line. For myself, personally, what I tried to do, as my kids were growing up, I tried to be home in the evenings for my family.

That meant that I would try to come in very early to do work early so I could have my evenings free to be with my family. In particular, you have people who have conflicts, and how you treat those folks when they're going through conflicts between family and work and the value you place on them paying attention to their family is really important.


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