Summer 2013
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The Public Manager

Communication Provides Foundation for Being a ‘Best Place to Work’

KS
Saturday, June 15, 2013

At the U.S. Army Audit Agency, communication is vital to success and to reaching the next level of organizational performance and employee satisfaction.

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These are tough times to be a federal employee. At nearly every turn, federal workers are facing pay freezes (no cost-of-living increase in three years and counting), no awards, threats of government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, hiring freezes, and sequestration (and with that, furloughs). The federal workforce is often denigrated as a key reason why there's a bloated federal bureaucracy, but in reality there are fewer federal workers doing more work today than ever before and most take their charge to serve their country very seriously—and proudly.

This year's average overall score of job satisfaction for participating federal organizations from the survey of federal workers by the Partnership for Public Service was 60.8 percent—the lowest score since the partnership began reporting these statistics in 2003 and a drop of 3.2 percent from last year.

Despite this downward trend across the federal government, the U.S. Army Audit Agency had the highest score for job satisfaction (85.7 percent) of all participating federal agencies—large, midsize, small, and subcomponent. The agency also placed first among 292 subcomponent agencies in this year's rankings, making it one of the federal government's best places to work.

So, in this challenging environment, what makes a federal agency a great place to work and how does it get there? According to the Army Audit Agency's leader, Auditor General Randall L. Exley, there are a number of important factors but none more important than communication. "An informed and happy workforce is a productive one," he says, "and happiness depends, to a large degree, on trust, which is built by effective and open communication."

A Top Priority

Exley has made improved communications a top priority for his agency. "Whether it's between peers, between supervisor and staff, or between auditor and client, communication is vital to our continued success and to reaching the next level of organizational performance and employee satisfaction," Exley says. "Improving our already very good communication is of paramount importance up, down, and across the organization."

The agency serves the Army's evolving needs by helping senior leaders assess and mitigate risk, and by providing solutions through independent auditing services for the benefit of the American soldier. Though its authorized level is 577, the agency has 550 staff divided into 20 functional audit teams and a support staff directorate. About 80 employees work at the agency's operations center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia; the rest work at 20 field offices (18 offices are spread across the United States; the other two offices are in Germany and the Republic of Korea). The agency also deploys auditors to Kuwait and Afghanistan, where they serve alongside soldiers downrange.

Fixing Staff-Management Communication

The auditor general and his executive team regularly visit field offices for town hall meetings and separate group meetings with staff members and with supervisors. It was during these group meetings over the past few years that Exley heard a recurring concern voiced by staff of a disconnect in staff-management communications—from top-level leadership to first-line supervisors.

Some staff felt excluded from the decision-making process for their audits. Others felt that their managers didn't trust them to work independently even though they were capable of doing so. Without an explanation by management, staff were left frustrated. Some staff also voiced that management practices weren't consistent within field offices or across the agency. Auditors had to learn each supervisor's way of doing business whenever they changed teams.

Exley recognized that this disconnect was creating missed opportunities to capture and expand the flow of ideas that could make the agency an even more fulfilling place to work. Consequently, he tasked the agency's workforce management team to develop an effective and affordable plan to train all agency managers, dedicating time and resources to improving communications and fostering open and transparent dialogue.

Tailored Training Puts Work into Context

After extensively researching training programs and products, the workforce management team recommended an off-the-shelf program from a contractor that provides communications training programs. The team then developed a short, closed-ended, and anonymous survey for agency employees to get their perception of current communication in the organization. Survey results helped ensure that the training focused on areas with the lowest scores. In the end, the team incorporated the training program into a tailored workshop full of practical exercises that put the auditors' work into context.

Over six months, managers held 10 two-day sessions of the workshop at various field office locations. Each session was packed with valuable content and practical exercises. Students completed course evaluations, and the team modified subsequent iterations of the workshop to make the training even more focused and effective.

During each session, participants were introduced to the principles of communication contained in the off-the-shelf training program. They then had opportunities to apply these principles to critical conversations and situations that supervisors regularly encounter in the workplace, including

  • building trust and creating collaboration
  • giving praise, criticism, and performance reviews
  • gathering information
  • disagreeing effectively
  • resolving conflict.

"When I originally announced the workshop, I spoke about my desire to create a culture in which effective communication and candor are a natural part of how we work together," Exley explains. He and other agency senior leaders were very deliberate in explaining why the training was mandatory for all agency leaders—including the auditor general. "I wanted each of our managers to use the workshop as an opportunity to get a little better each day at this important part of our craft, and to coach their team members on the principles of good communication," he says.
His executive team developed a strategic communications message that Exley forwarded to the entire workforce explaining that this effort was not to correct the mistakes of a few, but to improve the agency as a whole because everyone—no matter how good a communicator—had something to gain from the training.

An Overall Communications Strategy

The workshop has been just one part of a multifaceted effort to improve communication at the Army Audit Agency. Subsequent to the workshops, the auditor general has asked for feedback from agency leaders on how they are applying the principles taught in the class.

At leadership meetings, program directors and audit managers are regularly asked to share what they've done or are doing to improve communication with their teams. Communication has been added to performance standards for supervisors, and it's become a key criterion for agency awards.

The agency's second-in-command, Principal Deputy Auditor General Joseph Mizzoni, says staff members are asked three questions: What information do you need to successfully accomplish your mission? What information do you need to feel like you're an important part of the organization? What is the best way to get you that information?

The workforce management division also created a handbook of best practices in communication, which was disseminated to all staff. And the agency has dedicated a full-time staff member to its newly formed Strategic Communications Branch.

The auditor general continues to reinforce effective communications throughout the year through blog posts and email, and at town hall and agency leadership meetings. Exley has an image he likes to show at these town hall meetings: a bottle of water next to a dead plant. No matter how good the quality of the water, it cannot bring a dead plant back to life. He extrapolates this to good communication. "No matter how well-organized and well-presented your message is," he says, "communication will not be effective if it's about the wrong things."

He recognizes that effective communications is hard work. "It's a balanced mixture of art and scientific method. It's more about receiving than sending, and it requires more listening than presenting," Exley says. He continues: "It's as much about how you communicate as it is what you communicate. It's as much about your knowledge of your receivers and your relationships with them as it is about the subject of conversation."

Heightening Empowerment

Exley notes that employees are seeing a difference in both the frequency and nature of communications with their leaders and feedback from staff shows that the course has markedly improved communication (see Figure 1). Auditors feel like they have a voice and are listened to. One commented, "Open communication has made relationships with peers and supervisors much better."

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Additionally, staff feels more empowered. "Generally speaking, we're given enough authority to talk to people, gather data, analyze it, and make decisions (or at least recommendations) to complete our work," one staff member said.

Managers are creatively passing on the communication principles they have learned. Some have made "office communication" the topic at team meetings or the focus of a field office "lunch and learn." One field office posts photos and supportive messages; another has a "thank you" whiteboard where anyone can write a note thanking someone for something nice or helpful he or she has done.

Some offices have instituted employee advisory boards to facilitate better communication between staff and management. "As with any new initiative, it will take time to achieve our goals," Exley says, "but this progress in such a short time is heartening and fills me with pride in our management team."

One staff member adds, "What makes our agency great is that leadership listens and takes action. We identified that communication needed improvement and our leaders stepped up and addressed the deficiency. The communications workshop, our human capital plan, the auditor general's blogs…. all of these are examples of how our agency listens to the concerns of its employees and then takes meaningful steps to try to address the concerns."

The emphasis on communication also has helped staff members feel even more like they're part of a team. One auditor noted, "My management allows me to voice my opinions openly and freely—they always listen and they make you feel like what you're saying matters. They value your input and say thanks. They treat me more as a peer than an employee—it's about accomplishing the mission as a team."

According to Mizzoni, after listening, leaders must act. "Without the next step (acting upon what the staff says), the words are empty," he says. "We want to listen because we want to know what to address to make the agency better."

Another staff member commented, "With clear goals and mission and message—and how we go about accomplishing them successfully—staff are empowered to excel and care about what they do."

One of Exley's guiding philosophies is to communicate broadly and deeply—and to lead transparently. He regularly blogs to employees, sharing what he and his executive team hear at top-level Pentagon and command meetings so staff knows what's happening almost as soon as he does.

According to Mizzoni, "We need to share all the information we can. When you don't fully disclose all information, people will fill in the blanks with either the wrong or worst-case information." Mizzoni discussed the auditor general's initiatives when he participated in a recent panel discussion on effective communications sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service with leaders from several other highly successful organizations.

Exley says agency auditors are an integral part of the Army team, seeking to improve the Army by providing timely, value-added audit services. "We are the Army's internal auditors," he explains. "We audit what matters most to Army senior leaders and quickly deliver results in support of soldiers, civilians, and families."

Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh congratulated the agency on winning the Best Places to Work award. "Your accomplishments are great news for the Army, and we are inspired by your sustained and exceptional performance," he wrote in a letter. "You stand as a stalwart example of success for our Army organizations and the rest of the federal government. You have established a high standard of excellence and I am proud to serve on the Army team with you."

KS
About the Author

Kathleen Skidmore-Williams is chief of the Army Audit Agency’s editorial branch. Her team edits more than 200 audit reports, attestations, and follow-up audits each year. In her spare time, she enjoys arguing the merits of the serial comma and sharpening red pencils.

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