Winter 2011
Issue Map
The Public Manager

Commit to Thrive in a Crisis

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Need a strategy to thrive amidst crisis? Learn how FDIC leveraged leadership development as a strategic tool for crisis management.

If you are a federal manager, chances are you have already been informed that discretionary fundingtraining and travelhas been cut or drastically reduced at your agency. When an agency interrupts its investment in building the capabilities of its people while expecting higher levels of performance, it misses the opportunity to use learning and development as a strategic crisis leadership tool.


What you may know intuitively but have difficulty conveying in budget allocation negotiations is that an alternate strategy exists. Agencies can thrive during crisis and emerge more competitively positioned, with higher morale and an increased sense of purpose and value.

FDIC Success Story

In July 2011, Sheila Bair completed her five-year term as chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). She left in place an agency a 2011 Wall Street Journal article described as transformed from a sleepy bank overseer into a financial regulatory powerhouse focused on preventing another financial crisis. How did FDIC accomplish this amidst challenges on multiple fronts?

Between 2007 and 2010, FDIC had many employee engagement challenges. It faced organizational strain from expanding its temporary workforce by more than 1,000 employees and new regulatory responsibilities associated with the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Among the challenges, the financial crisis loomed biggest. The agency could easily have argued that all resources needed to be allocated to meet the demands for mission-critical functions (bank closings and examination activities). But Bair and her executive leadership team had a strategic vision to thrive amidst the crisis. FDIC committed resources to a culture change initiative, sustained its investment in learning and development, and acknowledged that leading effectively was a responsibility shared by all employees.

The corporation will continue to make changes to its corporate culture. Doing so in a time of increasingly heavy mission-critical workload will be difficult, but FDICs senior leaders remain committed to continually improving the culture at the agency. FDIC employees at all levels [are required] to engage in the change process and take personal responsibility for influencing positive outcomes. (FDIC All Employee Survey Results and Plans for Action, December 2009).

From November 2008 until February 2011, I had the privilege of serving as chair for the College of Leadership Development in FDIC. It was the time of the surgea phrase that stuck due to the expanded workforce and the increasing pace of regulatory activities. We educated staff on leveraging leadership development as a strategic tool.

We illustrated the value of preserving our investment in learning and development when faced with competing demands for resources, and we reflected on the idea that the people and mission were worthy targets for investment.

The payoff in employee engagement and organizational and leadership effectiveness has been substantial. In 2010 FDIC was ranked in the top 10 places to work by the Partnership for Public Services Best Places to Work survey and reached number one in 2011. With an overall index score of 85.9, FDIC had improved its ranking from historic lows of 54.5 (2005) and 59.5 (2007). In the midst of the financial sector crisis, the agency had not only met performance demands but also dealt with significant organizational issues.

Starting Point: A Vision for High Performance

During my first weeks as chair of the College of Leadership Development the mandate was clear: no matter the pace of workforce expansion and the increased workload, promote leadership development at all levels of the agency. The corporation had launched a series of leadership courses taught by external contractors. What was needed was the architecture that would support a vision for leadership at all levels, alignment of leadership development to mission critical organizational needs, and more cost-effective internal expertise.

During the design process, I added in a systems thinking-based strategic framework. I developed this in 2005 based on coursework offered by the Federal Executive Institute and conducted by the Commonwealth Center for High Performance. This framework would define and align leadership programs to emphasize the critical value of using leadership development as a tool to address the context in which we were leading and performing within the corporation.

Strategic Framework: High-Performance Leadership

A strategic igh-performance leadership framework can be extremely useful to a time-challenged staff juggling overwhelming workloads. I challenged myself to build a model that incorporated the critical elements of high-performance leadership, could be applied to diverse organizational settings (public and private sector), and could be used as a strategic leadership effectiveness tool, allowing agencies to customize elements of the model to fit their unique context.

We used this model as a foundational element in all FDIC leadership courses and programs. We also used it in an applied setting as a strategic thinking tool with more than 100 of our Division of Receivership and Resolution managers to assess realignment of resources and redefine strategy when first faced with the new regulatory requirements of the Dodd-Frank legislation.

The model is flexible enough to incorporate new elements and can be customized to reflect critical stress points or organizational issues. The goal is to get busy leaders to consider whether they are operating in all four boxes (strategic focus, nimble use of resources, information flows, and morale.) In this way, the model also can be a change-management tool. Managers can adjust their execution given new demands or circumstances.

First the strategic leadership framework underpinned leadership programs and initiatives. Then we employed it to assist employees at all levels to keep in mind leadership best practices while managing an unrelenting workload.

Communication: A Powerful Tool

During the height of the financial crisis, FDIC established three temporary satellite offices to support the increased demand for services in managing bank closings, known as resolutions and receiverships. Located in California, Florida, and Chicago, these offices multiplied the number of field-based employees. A substantial number (1,260) were new temporary hires facing the challenge of meeting performance demands while dealing with their own learning curve. Additionally, all employees were at risk for burnout due to expanding workloads.

In 2008 an internal working group, the Culture Change Committee, recommended that the agency circulate routine tips on leadership to improve morale and professional endurance among the workforce. I saw this as an opportunity to disseminate best practices in leadership and launched a monthly commentary on leadership, which was distributed by email to all managers and then posted on the FDIC intranet for all employees.

The goal of each essay was to provide straightforward back-of-the-envelope tools for overwhelmed managers and to communicate more broadly to the employee workforce that leadership mattered amidst the crisis. Essays focused on morale, endurance, and crisis leadership. Field and headquarters staff came to anticipate these postings, and in spite of their overwhelming workload, FDIC employees often wrote that these postings showed them that HQ understood their challenges.


Leadership in Action: Learning Curve

August 2010

Tools and Tips for Guiding Your New Staff

Even in our high-paced environment it is essential that we find time early on in the induction phase of a new employee to provide learning curve guidance. This is even true with employees who transfer into our divisions from other roles within the corporation.

Learning Curve Conversations

Know how you should demonstrate your performance and competency:

  • Early on have a conversation with your new staff members clearly describing a fundamental tenet of demonstrating performance; demonstrate competency and credibility by meeting the fundamental responsibilities of the position before expecting advancement or more complex assignments.
  • Be explicit. What would technical credibility and competency look like?
  • Remind your newest staff members to spend their time making sure they are really good at the fundamentals and to invest time in understanding what their managers and team members need and expect from them.

Understand how you should approach building relationships:

  • Guide your staff to understand which relationships are critical and how to build their credibility. Their initial focus should be on peer to peer and managing up relationships.
  • Your employee should be able to answer the question, How do you contribute to the success for your peers and your manager?

Develop an awareness of how to build influence:

  • The starting point for influence in any new organizational role is to demonstrate that you are highly competent at what you are there to do.
  • The next step is to build a reputation for being a trusted advisor with the ability to assist others, problem solve, and support your colleagues.
  • Develop the ability to fully understand the perspective and positions taken by others.


Best Practices Toward a Competitive Advantage

Although not every agency is hit on multiple fronts at once as FDIC was, we all at times must sustain and lead performance during an unprecedented crisis period. Our leaders make do with limited resources, uncertainty, and continuous organizational development needs. Federal employees expect and deserve sound leadership. There are steps we, as learning and development professionals, can take to thrive amidst the crisis:

  • Lead performance, sustain morale, and promote organizational effectiveness by safeguarding your investment in learning and development.
  • Leverage leadership development by aligning programs to address both the longer term organizational issues and the near-term demand for doing more with less.
  • Use communication tools, such as the monthly essay on leadership, to reinforce best practices in leading effectively for overwhelmed managers.
  • Adopt a systems-thinking framework to align leadership development content and skill development.
  • Build internal subject matter expertise to deliver cost-effective leadership development programs.

Adopting these best practices will give you and your agency the competitive advantage you need to be able to look back in two or three years and report how your agency thrived amidst the crisis.


FDIC Internal Posting: Leadership in Action April 2010

Finding Your Pace: Leadership Endurance Strategies

There are times when i have to ask my family to remind me what day it is.

This staff persons comment shared with me by one of our Drr [Division of resolutions and receiverships] field managers during a recent site visit reflects the intensity of the pace and performance demands we continue to face as we move through another surge year.

How do we pace ourselves in crisis? we posed this question to ambassador nathaniel howell, who faced a 134-day siege of the U.S. embassy in Kuwait during the iraqi invasion from august 2 to December 1990. building on the strategy he shared to model endurance and pacing we offer specific steps which may be helpful to us in the weeks and months ahead.

Manage the unpredictable by developing work arounds.

Avoid useless worry. Focus on what needs to be done in the immediate term. Keep central goals in mind and dismiss any anxiety that leads you past what you cannot influence.

Pace your staff. Your high performers will reach burnout quickly and other staff may not possess a sufficient level of resilience under stress. Monitor each.

Be prepared to practice independent decision making. Prepare yourself to make decisions that suit the realities you are facing but know this probably will not get you promoted.

Leverage purpose. There is nothing more motivating than a sense of purpose during crisis.

Pace yourself. Schedule a time each day to disconnect.

Delegate. ask yourself who might be the person on your staff who would be most suited to take on this responsibility for you. if you use too much of your emotional and intellectual energy on execution you will diminish your reserve to lead. Stay out of the weeds.

Create small victories. Find reasons to celebrate making it through.

Manage expectations. if you cant say no, negotiate by collaboratively shifting priorities.

Lighten up. humor is a great stress reliever.

Know you can live with and survive the crisis. we know we will get through this together, the only question for us is how. we invite comments or questions.


About the Author

Marie A. Westbrook, PhD, has an extensive career in consulting and federal management including positions at the U.S. Department of State, International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, FDIC, and Securities and Exchange Commission. She has worked with nonprofit international agencies in technical assistance, civil society, and education reform projects. Contact her at [email protected] .

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