A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 23, 2013

On My Watch: Dealing With Leadership Crisis

'Not on my watch,' is one of those defiant, chest-thumping declarations of managerial intent designed to signal a determination to stave off mistakes, crises, disappointments and disasters; the sort of problems whose denial executives often find easy to mouth but which few of them ever really have to face.

Sales declines? Environmental spills? Losing a key customer? Stuff, as they say, happens. But how about discovering that the organization for which you are very publicly responsible suddenly suffers from the glare of a exploding scandal about whose origins you, dear leader, knew nothing?

Sympathy is rare and resignation followed by ignominy is common. Some, like JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon brazen it out thanks to vast financial resources and a web of bought-and-paid-for supporters. But the average manager has neither the money, the time or the defenders to thwart the howling mob, however remote and digital they may be.

Most leaders who suffer through such an experience slink away, lick their wounds and quietly try to rebuild their lives and their reputation. Martha Johnson chose another path, which makes her story that much more remarkable. She was the Administrator of the US General Services Administration, the entity responsible for overseeing the vast real estate holdings of the US government and all of the services, processes - and problems - associated with it. A scandal involving the almost unimaginably inept decision by some underlings to host a government-sponsored workshop a) in Las Vegas and b) with a lot of over-the-top  accessorization that even a financial services auditor might think about twice, let alone an agency charged with making government more efficient. Johnson, following the predictable script in such situations, resigned, and not without the expected firm, albeit stealthy, push from her horrified bosses in the White House who feared the taint would attach itself to them.

And it might have ended there: another sad tale of good intentions gone wrong under the weight of a huge bureaucracy. But rather than hide and stew, Johnson has chosen to tell her cautionary tale so that others may learn from it. I should add at this point that she and I have been friends since grad school. There is no one more intelligent, sensitive and competent. If this could happen to Martha Johnson, trust me, it can happen to anyone. The point is twofold: that in our technologically-driven, global economy, the immensely scalable enterprises we have developed to 'optimize' our returns can also magnify our crises; and that while the very human instinct to assign blame will be forever with us, choosing to share with and to learn from such experiences is an act of bravery and of wisdom. JL

Martha Johnson excerpts from her book On My Watch:

In April of 2012, a scandal emerged over a GSA training conference in Las Vegas, and Martha Johnson, Administrator of the General Services Administration for President Obama, was compelled to resign. What happens when things fall apart and how leaders can re-surface.

Despite the uproar of that moment, Johnson asserts, the real story of GSA was of the extraordinary innovation underway at the agency.  On My Watch illuminates her tenure at GSA and her leadership strategies of innovation, interruption, transparency, and design in the face of seemingly intractable problems.

Johnson describes inventive techniques such as SLAMs, Pull Metrics, and flexible workplaces that she and others brought to government.
Johnson also emphasizes that leaders who change the game deal in risk up. 
On My Watch discusses what happens when things fall apart and how leaders can re-surface.

About a leader's challenges:

Leading in the Dark: Without perfect information, leaders have to make guesses and take risks. It is not easy. I must confess, however, that as GSA's Administrator I lost very little sleep over actually taking a risk. That was in part because I rarely took a risk by myself. Most of the tough decisions were well vetted for me. I walked into them with my eyes wide open.

However, I was uneasy about the risks that I did not know I was taking. My ego could handle making the wrong decisions when I had been briefed and had sifted the options. The difficulty lay in not knowing something that needed correction. What about the risks that were hidden from me? What crocodile was lurking just below the waterline?

About a leader's work:

Champion Change: Our institutions must not only change, they must change dramatically and perpetually. If leaders are frozen in place by narrow self-protection or an obeisance to constraints, we will simply not succeed as an economy or as a nation. Our innovative competence is a national treasure.

Move Organizations Out of Their Traps: Organizations can get caught in tight spirals of habits and culture. Doom loops are like old record players that would hit a scratch on a vinyl record and repeatedly play only one phrase of music. Someone had to nudge the needle to the next groove. When things get stuck, leaders must move the needle with fresh thinking and new options.

Work to Hear What's Happening:  To know what is going on, leaders must listen to and hear from people. It's not hard. For example, ... conduct speed halls (not town halls) where employees have three minutes each to share a suggestion. It is very simple: to get people to talk, leaders must shut up and listen. 

Seek Blockbuster Ideas: It is great to find an idea that sparks a metamorphosis in a person’s thinking or an organization's mindset. Blockbuster ideas rearrange everyone's thinking. Employees are intrigued, even startled. The ideas spread as others are also tickled by the new approach. Soon people are energized, galvanized, and paying attention. 

About Leadership Resilience:

Leaving Abruptly: Ending my time at GSA as I did left me acutely aware of the value of rituals. There were no proper goodbyes. I had no chance to shake hands and tell people how much they had taught me and meant to me. I did not get to eat dry cake and laugh over stupid farewell jokes. That rending of the social fabric has been simply tragic to me.

The Aftermath: I am not under 40, but instead over 60. I am in the demographic of people who tiptoe up to their computers and fret over social networking and "living out loud." I do not have to fret. I have no choice. My name and pictures are all over the internet. It is a done deal. I am on the other side of the 15 minutes of fame thing. I have joined the younger generation.

The Pain of Trust: The simple humanity of the mistakes is the heart of the GSA scandal/story for me. People are people. We are all frail, prone to bad habits, vanities, and imperfections. As the warts appear, and they inevitably will, a leader has to continue to extend trust. Leaders are not - and never will be - leading a choir of saints. That cannot be a precondition for a leader. Leaders lead people, and people are human.

Importantly, leaders always have to go first. I had to trust GSA, or it would not have ever trusted me back... Given what I know now, leadership trust is altogether more poignant, valuable, and necessary.

Martha Johnson is leadership speaker and writer who draws on the lessons learned as an executive with a more than 30-year career in public and private organizations.
She was nominated by President Obama and confirmed unanimously by the US Senate to be the Administrator of the General Services Administration, a position she held for two years. She also served eight years with the Clinton Administration and was appointed to two commissions with the British Government. Her private sector career has spanned the information technology, architecture, strategic consulting, and automotive industry.

Johnson has delivered over 50 public speeches on topics including leadership, organizational transformation, sustainability, and government innovation. She has been featured repeatedly in the press and has testified before the US Congress on government effectiveness.

Johnson was graduated with a BA from Oberlin College and an MBA from the Yale University School of Management. She is married, has two adult children, and resides in Annapolis, Maryland.


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