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Asking the right questions: a senior federal executive looks forward to 2012 on his personal and professional journey.

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From a professional, or career, perspective, the year 2012 seems far away. Yet it was only eleven years ago that I sold my veterinary practice and decided to see what a veterinarian could do to help people (which is what a friend asked me at the time). Clinical practice was satisfying, but I wanted to do more. Thinking about another career, I was not sure what to do.

Did I have a vision then of where I would be now? Probably not--I joined the federal government more on a feeling. Much has changed: I have lived in five different states, held nine different positions, and now need to consider my vision of where I want to be in 2012.

Reflections

To do so, I need to reflect on where I have been. Since joining the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), my positions have steadily moved from technical to supervisory to management. Possible leadership assignments in the Senior Executive Service (SES) are now on my horizon, and I can't decide on my direction on feeling alone because the decision is too critical.

Since my federal career began, my decisions naturally have affected me, but also the people around me. In addition, some decisions may have affected the health of the people of the United States. I now manage a group that helps write U.S. food safety policy. The important consequences of my decisions require careful reflection rather than feeling.

I have been more careful in considering career decisions for some time. Various programs over the years have helped me consider my options more fully. Now, in the SES Candidate Development Program (CDP), my instructors offer amazing insights and tools, especially related to leadership. These allow me to consider not only where I may be in 2012, but also how to get there and the impact I may have on others in the process.

Emotional Intelligence

The first chapter of Primal Leadership, Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence describes the downside of emotional intelligence (EI), which reminds me of the agency in which I am right now. Political battles, reorganizations, upper leadership changes, food safety concerns, and public fear of food-borne illness have soured the mood of agency personnel, especially in my program area. When work is emotionally demanding, leadership needs to be empathetic and supportive, but I perceive dissonant rather than resonant leadership. I also perceive "CEO disease": some of the agency's top leaders do not want to hear bad news.

EI competencies are the vehicles, and resonance is the key, to primal leadership. Learning one's EI, using strengths, and understanding limitations should assist in the leadership development of an individual. I will take my second 360[degrees] EI measure in this program. Besides comparing competencies of the second measure to the first, it will identify improvements made and areas needing improvement. It will also help me to identify the training opportunity and the 120-day detail for this program, possible critical steps for where I want to be in 2012.

In addition, the CDP components should help with determining the leadership styles with which I am most comfortable as well as those I need to develop. Leaders can be made and EI can be learned; this is an important component of personal growth and the self-directed learning in this program. The question that I formed in reading this book, to assist in my vision of where I want to be in 2012, is, "What can I do to assist this agency in improving the EI of its personnel through primal leadership?" The answer that I perceive at this time is to learn as much as possible about EI during this CDP process. I hope to use this knowledge (as much as the pervading organizational culture will allow) to help personnel and the agency better meet the agency's mission.

Change Your Questions

The book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life suggests, "The best way to solve a problem is to first come up with better questions." What questions do I want to ask myself to determine where I want to be in 2012? What question do I need to ask the agency in determining where I want to be, and where it wants to be, in 2012? Clearly, according to the Choice Map in the book, the logical path to follow when asking questions is the Learner Path. The insight gained from this tool helps me understand that should I instead take the Judger Path; it is important to identify this and switch to ask the best questions to make the right decisions. In fact, one of the switching questions is, "Where would I like to be?" This tells me that as I decide where I want to be in 2012, should I find myself wandering in uncertainty, I only have to identify and ask the right questions to lead me in the right direction. "What learner questions will help me to make the changes I want in my own life?"

In working with myself, others around me, and even the direction of the agency, finding the most appropriate questions to lead me (self-Qs) and others in the right direction is key. This action should allow me to create an effective team that provides the agency with what it needs to move forward. This action should help to make me an "inquiring leader."

One of the seven tools of the question thinking system has to do with putting the power of questions to work. The "interpersonal questions" identify that I should recall a time when I encountered a question that made a positive difference in my life. I immediately thought of when I was trying to decide whether to sell my veterinary practice and pursue another career. As mentioned, a friend asked me, "Why don't you see what a veterinarian can do to help people?" Without realizing it, I was using question thinking eleven years ago to decide where I wanted to be in the future. At that time, I was unaware of it. I may have been using this tool all along.

So, related to question thinking, where do I want to be in 2012? Why don't I determine what a federal manager can do to help lead the agency and ultimately improve public health in the United States? How can I do this? The answer is to work during the next two years in the SES CDP to learn to become the best potential SES, and leader, that I can be.

Action Learning

Optimizing the Power of Action Learning appears to put question thinking to work, using action learning; the best insights and solutions are attained by asking good questions. To think that six components and two ground rules are all that are needed to solve problems is a bit simplified, but the author systematically explains why. He identifies that good questions may lead to reflective inquiry, and reflective inquiry may lead to learning about oneself. As stated previously, when my friend asked me what a veterinarian can do to help people, the question caused me to reflect on what I was doing and what I could be doing. Now, thinking about where I want to be in the year 2012 causes a similar reflection.

A number of actions over the past eleven years have helped me achieve my present assignment. These include taking difficult assignments and doing them well, having good supervisors who were willing to mentor me, and continuing my education to better learn the roles expected of me. I could have taken a number of paths in my career. I have made a number of critical decisions and taken action in response to those decisions, but there is more than one way to arrive at the same destination. I could have easily ended up in a spot similar to where I am today, looking to the future of the agency and public health, in the CDP.

Systems Thinking

Using the systems thinking in Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, I once developed a tool to identify the interrelationships of safe food production. The breakdown in the variables of safe food production can lead to human food-borne illness. These interrelationships are critical to the agency's mission, yet many food safety leaders do not seem to grasp this concept. This could also be a reason why some leaders do not grasp the concepts of action learning or of organizational interdependence.

As noted previously, where I have been and where I will be depend on the interrelations of many variables. The question that I ask now is, "What actions must I take now to be where I want to be in 2012?" Right now, my answer is that I must continue to do well in my assignments, learn from my mentors, and pursue my education to better learn the leadership expected of me. This includes completing the CDP and probably the master of public administration degree. These actions would help me learn as much as possible in the knowledge and academic sides of public administration. Along with the CDP, I can put that knowledge into action with the agency, hopefully as an SES.

Putting It All Together

Robert Kramer's article "How Might Action Learning Be Used to Develop the Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Capacity of Public Administrators" puts it all together: action learning to develop EI and leadership in public administrators. Kramer identifies the differences between federal administrators and managers and leaders. The fundamental shift in the meaning of public administrative leadership between the past and now provides the impetus for applying the tools of question thinking, EI, primal leadership, and action learning. For me to move from 2008 to 2012, I need to apply these tools in all aspects of my career, and my personal life, to get where I want to be. Moreover, I need to be in that role as an effective leader for the agency.

Kramer says that unlike administration and management, leadership is not about control. Leadership is about moving others and myself to action. This is especially accomplished by using EI. Kramer also refers to the constant "white water" environment of public service, one that I know well. My agency is constantly in the midst of "chaos," coping with reorganization, geographical movement of personnel, executive leadership changes, and fluctuating political agendas, which make for an uncertain and stressful future. There is even talk in Congress of a single food safety agency.

Therefore, one of my goals for 2012 would be to assist the agency in moving away from the white water or chaos to give agency personnel a better feeling about their roles in public service and in the public health mission of the agency. I can accomplish this more effectively by achieving an SES position and working with others in using the tool of action learning to assist the agency in solving some of its many problems. Action learning and asking high-quality questions will help to promote the EI and leadership, not only in myself but also in others, as we move toward 2012.

Conclusion

The power of asking the right questions is clear. These questions, reflections, learning, and proposed actions allow me to construct a vision of where I want to be professionally in 2012 and what I must do to get there. This vision includes completing the CDP, continuing my education in public administration, doing well at my current and future assignments, and one day attaining an SES position. As I went through the process of identifying questions to ask myself related to each reading for this article, I found many to be similar. I now have several questions and answers to help attain that vision by 2012 (see box).

References

Adams, Marilee G. Change Your Questions, Change Your Life (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004).

Goleman, Daniel, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal Leadership, Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

Kramer, Robert. "How Might Action Learning Be Used to Develop the Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Capacity of Public Administrators?" Journal of Public Affairs Education, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2007.

Marquardt, Michael J. Optimizing the Power of Action Learning: Solving Problems and Building Leaders in Real Time (Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing, 2004). Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990).

Afterword

This article was adapted from a paper the author submitted as part of the requirements of American University's (AU's) Key Executive Leadership Program, which includes MPA (spa.american.edu/key) and certificate segments (spa.american.edu/keycertificate). Both seek to increase leadership capacity and encourage students to choose to change. The editor thanks Robert M. Tobias, director of AU's Public Sector Executive Education program, for bringing this article and others to our attention. For other worthy, unexpurgated papers submitted as part of this program, visit The Public Manager Web site at www.thepublicmanager.org.

Q1. What can I do to help the agency improve the EI of its personnel through primal leadership?

A1. Learn as much as possible about EI during the CDP process so that I can use it to help personnel and the agency better meet the agency's mission.

Q2. What can a federal manager do professionally to help lead the agency and ultimately to improve public health in the United States?

A2. Work hard during the next two years in the CDP to learn to become the best potential SES, and leader, that I can be.

Q3. What actions must I take now to be where I want to be in 2012?

A3. Continue to perform well in assignments, learn from mentors, and pursue my education to better learn the leadership that will be expected of me.

Q4. What can I do to assist the agency in moving away from white water or chaos to give agency personnel a better feeling for their roles in public service and in the public health mission of the agency?

A4. Work to achieve an SES position and work with others in using the tool of action learning to assist the agency in solving problems, including asking high-quality questions, to promote EI and leadership in myself and in others.

James C. Kile is director, Policy Development Division, Office of Policy, Program, and Employee Development, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service in Omaha, Nebraska. He can be reached at james.kile@fsis.usda.gov
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Author:Kile, James C.
Publication:The Public Manager
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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