Sunday, August 31, 2014

5 Management Lessons From My First Year At NARA

Screenshot via LeadershipFreak

When I took the job of Digital Engagement Director almost exactly a year ago I had in mind to "live blog" the experience of being a senior, second-level executive with two dozen staff. I thought that it would be cool to make the experience transparent, in all its ups and downs.

Quickly I learned that this was not a good goal to have, because in a job where you're essentially focused on management as opposed to communication content, you need to think about organizational dynamics a lot. And if my experience/training has taught me anything, it's that if you're constantly turning the kishkes (intestines) of a place inside out, it ceases being able to function. Nevertheless, I think the following 5 lessons are both generic enough and specific enough to be meaningful:

1. A person is happy in a job if it suits their personality.  I like mine because I am "commanding, problem solver, want to make a difference, collector of data, adaptable" (from my StrengthsFinder results). What this means is that in most career planning conversations, there is too much emphasis on the type of work a person does, i.e. whether you are a marketer or a welder or a healthcare administrator. (For more on this see Penelope Trunk's career blog.) I appreciate that my boss not only recommended the SF but also ensured we had access to the book and the test itself. I have long been a fan of personality testing, Myers-Briggs, even astrology to align person with job and StrengthsFinder is by far the best.

2. Leadership and management exist on a continuum. Leadership is articulating "where we're going" and demonstrating the will to get there - e.g. taking action to enforce the vision, holding people accountable. Management is ensuring we get there in a measured way, and that people are well taken care of, supported, motivated, understood and provided with clear expectations and a fair system of organizational justice. You can't have one without the other. You may have to adjust one in consideration of the other, e.g. mindless management where you keep the train running on time, but it effectively goes to Auschwitz, is ridiculous and doesn't meet any good goal whatsoever. There has to be a dialogue.

3. You have to know how to listen, but not listen at the same time. In every organization there is going to be a stratosphere of talk. People need information that is not necessarily forthcoming. People want to have information they don't necessarily need. People want to become more important through the positioning of themselves as bearers of information. In every place, there is miscommunication, disinformation and sometimes confusion, because the right people aren't talking to each other or don't understand what the other is saying. You have to take what you hear with a grain of salt, always, understanding that necessarily, "you don't know what you don't know" or what you think you know, you might be getting wrong.

4. Respect for self, other and community are the basic values of every organization. These are values taught at school and they apply everywhere. The organization has to care for the person at the individual level regardless of how "busy" things are. There has to be enforcement of basic human decency between people, mechanisms for not only establishing what we mean by "order" but resolving the normal conflicts that crop up all the time. And recognition of the fact that we exist in a place populated by other people and groups that we will never see, but who are part of our world. This can happen through the establishment of affinity groups, internal social networks, and so on. But ultimately (though work is about work) it has to be about the relationships between people and modeling the highest quality of these.

5. In the end you either like the culture or you don't. I like it at NARA. A lot. It's not so much about the mission, although I could have a philosophical conversation with you about the critical nature of preserving history and how we can't have a democracy without access to "what really happened," at least to the extent we can preserve it. I could talk for days and days about the Google nature of our cultural knowledge and how people search superficially for headlines to gain quick understanding rather than actually looking at texts to draw slow and careful conclusions. I could go on and on about the importance of contextualizing information rather than always abstracting and comparing it with "like," a passion archivists have that is not well understood by people on the outside. But it's not really about all of that, if I am to be truthful. It is about the fact that NARA people are extraordinarily smart, and funny, and cognitive, and low-key and kind and socially appropriate. It is a joy to be in the room with them. It is an honor to work with some of the most respected people in Washington. Although people can't really understand how I fit in there...I see in the culture the qualities that I aspire to have and be known for. And I empathize with the struggle they are going through right now, one in which you recognize all the problems but have to prioritize and triage which you're going to deal with and when.

About being in management.

I saw a really good thing the other day about being an executive, about how you have to accept a kind of superhuman load of responsibility. It's not a job for people who want to clock in at 9 and out at 5. And what I see at NARA, as I saw at USAID and at CBP and the OCC previously - all the federal agencies where I've worked - is that our most senior civil servants take their job extremely seriously. They aren't fat cats living off the taxpayer's dime. They are sitting up at night worrying about how to carry the load effectively.

About civil servants versus political appointees.

It has been sad for me to watch criticism directed at the Administration somehow conflated with what our civil servants are doing, because these are two very different mechanisms and need to be understood each in its own context. Each has its problems that require fixing, but they aren't one and the same.

It also wouldn't be a bad thing to recognize the good work that gets done every day. Maybe it's sort of fun and exciting to criticize the government endlessly, but running a country well is a pretty hard job and not one that you can automate.

* This post was written by Dannielle Blumenthal in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the National Archives and Records Administration, or the United States government.