logo image

The Public Manager Magazine Article

Developing Leadership to Accelerate Bottom-Up Transformation of the Citizen Experience

Promoting an agency-wide customer service mindset requires real leaders who share four key attributes: They are reliable, empathetic, aspirational, and always learning.


Tue May 10 2016


Promoting an agency-wide customer service mindset requires real leaders who share four key attributes.

Developing Leadership to Accelerate Bottom-Up Transformation of the Citizen Experience-1157fd09dbc5d94aa8aaabc5895b912a8cd4bb118e47beecfce39afc795aa30f

Improving the citizen experience in the public sector is drawing much attention among federal agencies. Some, like Rick Parrish of Forrester Research, have suggested that this is a national imperative. Certainly, the cross-agency priority (CAP) goal of delivering "a world-class customer service experience for citizens and businesses" isn't going away. In fact, the House Appropriations Committee included a directive in the 2016 consolidated appropriations bill that the OMB submit a report by mid-March on agencies' progress in developing and implementing standards for customer service and incorporating them into their performance plans.


Leadership Needed

It's natural that elected leaders want to understand progress on important initiatives, and although another report isn't likely to accelerate the transformation of public sector experiences that our citizens expect, real leadership can. Although the challenges in each agency may differ, at the core, improving customer service is not just about changing agency processes and procedures, it's about creating an environment in which employees feel personal responsibility for each citizen's experience. That requires a different type of leadership.

In October 2015, Dale Carnegie Training conducted a web survey of a random sample of 1,000 employees throughout the United States to shed light on what great leaders are doing to inspire, motivate, and lead change. The research pointed to four key attributes and some eye-opening data. We've characterized these attributes as REAL: reliable, empathetic, aspirational, and _learner—_qualities consistent with those identified decades ago by Dale Carnegie, who described leaders people really want to follow and work hard for.

Four Attributes of Effective Leaders

First of all, reliable leaders are true to their own values and genuine in both word and action. It can be tempting to "check the box" when facing mandates from above, but followers are quick to perceive inauthenticity in their leaders. Not surprisingly, nearly 57 percent of respondents in our survey said that they would not give their best effort for leaders "who did not seem to believe in what they are doing."

Second, effective leaders are empathetic, meaning they focus on, truly listen to, and appreciate others. For leaders under pressure, this can be one of the first things to go when the urgency to get the job done intensifies. Nevertheless, it's critical because nearly 68 percent of respondents said they could not perform at their best for a leader who does not "show respect for other people's opinions." In addition, 58 percent won't give their best efforts to leaders who don't "show sincere appreciation," underscoring the importance of appreciation to effective leadership.

The third attribute is aspirational, signifying the leader who paints a vision that motivates people to overcome challenges and who champions a greater purpose. This provides followers with an opportunity to become part of something bigger than themselves. In our study, 69 percent of respondents said they want to follow a leader who is "focused on a higher purpose," even over financial rewards.


Finally, effective leaders are learners who set aside their egos. They seek input from others, including employees, and recognize and learn from their own mistakes. Our data showed that 68 percent of employees said they would gladly give their best for a leader who "asks for and listens to employees' input," yet 29 percent of respondents said that their leaders "fail to listen to others."

Making Progress Together

Delivering experiences that meet citizens' and businesses' growing expectations and federally mandated targets is only possible with the genuine commitment of agency leaders. By remaining a REAL leader and creating alignment across the organization, it's possible to unleash the potential of the talented people who work in the public sector.

Applying our findings to the challenge at hand suggests that leaders at every level would do well to keep these things in mind:

  • Be genuinely committed to the change and

the mission.

  • Connect with and respect all members of the team and appreciate their contributions.

  • Focus on the higher purpose of the goal and inspire others to do the same.

  • Seek input and solutions from others—be a continuous learner.

When employees at every level and across agencies are inspired to own the citizen experience, they will find solutions to accelerate progress. Above all, it will come when teams believe, through REAL leadership, that changing is the right thing to do.


You've Reached ATD Member-only Content

Become an ATD member to continue

Already a member?Sign In


Copyright © 2024 ATD

ASTD changed its name to ATD to meet the growing needs of a dynamic, global profession.

Terms of UsePrivacy NoticeCookie Policy