A new learning program may not be enough to really improve agency performance

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The Office of Management and Budget released what it called a learning agenda for federal agencies last week. This is the research they need to do to answer the big questions. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with someone who wonders if the learning program really addresses the core challenge of agency performance: Bob Tobias, professor at…

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The best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews at Apple podcast Where Podcast One.

The Office of Management and Budget released what it called a learning agenda for federal agencies last week. This is the research they need to do to answer the big questions. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to someone who wonders if the apprenticeship program really addresses the fundamental problem of agency performance: Bob Tobias, professor at American University’s Key Executive Leadership Program.

Tom Temin: Bob, what was your reaction to the apprenticeship program?

Bob Tobias: I think an apprenticeship program is a really good approach. Because sometimes people are given a task and jump right in, they don’t think through the real issues to find the root cause of the problem. So theoretically, it’s great. But I think a good process does not necessarily guarantee a good result. And I think the learning program has omitted the most important critical issue for achieving increased agency performance. And that is leadership development. We know, we all know that whatever policies are created from this leadership program, it takes great leaders to implement those policies on a daily basis. And it takes great leaders every day to increase productivity. So for me the most fundamental question is that when we know that great leadership is needed to increase performance, the question should be why agencies haven’t invested in leadership development at all levels ?

Tom Temin: Well, the apprenticeship program doesn’t really deal with that. I mean, it’s interesting talking to a professor about an apprenticeship program. And in developing leaders through American University courses there, does the idea of ​​a learning program for an organization arise? Perhaps not in these terms; “learning program” is kind of a new technical term, at least for me. How does learning figure in the first place?

Bob Tobias: The point is that leadership development is personal development. And it is necessary for a leader to create an environment where those he leads are willing to give their boss their discretionary energy, to accomplish their boss’ goals and objectives. And we know these types of leaders exist, but there aren’t enough of them. For example, as early as 2008, the [Merit Systems Protection Board] has proven the link between engaged employees and increased agency performance. And they said, and I quote, “Agencies with the highest employee engagement scores have the highest level of achievement of agency goals, and those with the lowest five scores have the lowest achievement of goals.” Now we know we’ve known this for years, and yet agencies haven’t invested in leadership development.

Tom Temin: Well, the apprenticeship program, however, doesn’t really deal with that. It is something separate. In other words, should you also have a learning program even if you have leadership development?

Bob Tobias: If the learning program had asked the question – which I believe it should have – “Why have we failed to develop the leaders we need?” The answer to this question is that we would recognize that not every leader has the personal development to empathize, or the vulnerability to say “I don’t know”, or the courage to provide negative feedback, or the ability to set clear goals and support their achievement, or willingness to delegate and let those being directed fail, then create a learning opportunity. It takes leadership development, and we know that, everyone knows that, but agencies don’t invest.

Tom Temin: Well, do you think leadership development is needed in all agencies for the learning program to run successfully?

Bob Tobias: That’s it. It is basically that. And interestingly, in 2015, MSPB in a report titled “Training and [Development] for Senior Executive Service: A Necessary Investmentsaid training and development can improve individual and organizational performance when properly designed, delivered and implemented. Thus, an investment in executive training and development can yield substantial returns in the form of improved performance. That’s it. That’s it: you have to invest in people in order to increase performance.

Tom Temin: And by MSPB, you’re referring to the Merit Systems Protection Board and the research it regularly does on these issues. Well, I think we saw examples of that recently, when the Service to America Medals program came out. We saw that the best federal employee of the year – he retired a few months ago – was the person who took on a project 10 years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, the James Telescope Webb, straightened it, and the thing launched successfully. And now we see the stunning images that flow from it. But it took running the same processes, the same people, the same program, changing direction, and suddenly it was about to launch.

Bob Tobias: It’s a perfect, perfect example. If I don’t have collaboration skills, if I don’t have empathy, if I don’t have the ability to bring people together to engage them and create that environment where people give their discretionary energy, I will fail. And he proved quite conclusively that leadership makes the difference.

Tom Temin: And by the way, we’re talking about [Greg] Robinson, who received this award. Do you recommend that agencies skip the apprenticeship program? I mean, they’re obligated to do it, depending [the Office of Management and Budget]. How should they deal with it, given the leadership development capabilities and skills they currently have?

Bob Tobias: I don’t think they should ignore this agenda. I think they should add this issue to the agenda in order to achieve the other objectives stated in the agenda. I just think it’s a question that’s been overlooked, not included, and I think it should be.

Tom Temin: OK. Well, from your lips to the ears of OMB. Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. Always good to have your opinion.

Bob Tobias: Thank you very much Tom.

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