Leaders must be realists, panel says

"These are exciting jobs,' said Jim Williams. 'It's not the NBA playoffs or climbing Mount Everest, but it's the next best thing. Every day is thrilling.'

Henrik G. de Gyor

A key attribute of leadership is realism, a panel of federal officials in charge of several high-profile IT projects said today at the GCN Management Leadership Awards and Conference in Washington.

A leader must be able to separate the possible from a flight of fancy, Richard H. Skorny, deputy associate CIO of the IRS, said.

When many program managers are asked if they can complete a task, 'The answer usually is 'We can do that,' ' said Skorny, who directs IRS' massive Business Systems Modernization project. 'But at what cost and what schedule?'

Leaders must be willing to admit that some tasks are unrealistic, he said.

Col. Jacob N. Haynes, program manager of the Defense Department's Standard Procurement System, said managing expectations is crucial to success.

He suggested one way to ensure realistic expectations is to budget extra time to meet objectives. Program managers often hold reserve funds to deal with unexpected costs, Haynes said, and they should consider allotting reserve time similarly to deal with delays.

Effective leaders also find a way to balance process with progress, said Jim Williams, the panel's moderator and director of the Homeland Security Department's U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology system.

Managers must deal with the oversight of agency executives, Congress and auditors from the General Accounting Office and inspectors general offices, who often demand specific processes, Williams said. But managers who focus only on process find their projects lacking in results. An effective leader will balance making progress on a project with developing the required processes, he said.

And an important element of the realism leaders need is metrics.

'Being able to measure is absolutely crucial,' said Rear Adm. Patrick Stillman, program executive officer of the Coast Guard's Integrated Deepwater Program. 'You are what you measure.'

The art of leadership, panelists said, is balancing the necessary realism with a passion for meeting challenges and delivering results.

'You gotta have a passion for your sense of responsibility and to deliver the product,' Stillman said.

For some, that passion comes easy. Performing work that benefits Americans can be its own incentive.

'These are exciting jobs,' Williams said. 'It's not the NBA playoffs or climbing Mount Everest, but it's the next best thing. Every day is thrilling.'

How do federal managers achieve balance in bringing both realism and passion to the programs they lead? By focusing on people.

Leadership is more important than management, Haynes said. 'We manage processes, but we lead people.'

Too often, managers are too busy keeping up with their everyday tasks to focus on evaluating their workers, developing their skills and serving as their mentors. 'That has got to change,' Stillman said.

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