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A Story of "Leading Up"

Submitted by Vicki Gray, USGS

If we believe and promote the idea that leadership can occur at any level in the organization then "leading up" becomes a desired characteristic of the USGS. "Leading up" isn't always understood. However, it really isn't much different than any other leadership act—it relies totally on the credibility and reputation of the person doing the leading. Isn't that true for any real act of leadership? In the story I'm about to tell, see how many of the USGS Leadership Guiding Principles you can identify.

One of the 4 main aspects of the USGS Strategic Plan is People. The goals under People include improving the Reward System. The Rewards goal was assigned to two senior managers in the organization—managers that didn't always work well together. It soon became apparent that neither of them was going to take the lead on this. As time went by and deadlines for plans and the like drew near, nothing had been done or discussed or planned. This lack of movement frustrated one of my co-workers who felt passionately that the Rewards System was something that needed to be addressed. After all, it was the biggest concern of employees based on their feedback in the 1999 USGS Organizational Assessment Survey (OAS).

Because of this increasing inertia—she brought up the issue with one of these two senior managers (both of whom were in her supervisory chain). The reaction she got was "rolled eyes." Basically the support was "do what you want to do but I've got important things to deal with." She then approached the other senior manager with the same end result - no real interest.

Now my co-worker was really frustrated! She knew that if these 2 managers weren't behind this effort, it wasn't going to work. So she set up a meeting with both of them so the 3 of them could discuss the issue. She came to the meeting prepared. She explained why this was important to them, the USGS, and the consequences of not doing anything. They became engaged. She then laid out a well thought out plan that included what support and action was needed from them. From there, she went into action, keeping her two senior managers involved and informed.

The story continues with my co-worker bringing together employees from around the USGS to a Rewards Summit to discuss the problems and concerns. They left the Summit with a big picture focus—far greater than "rewards" or "awards." What really needed to be done was to "Create a Rewarding Environment." As the Summit participants saw it, the issue was that what is a "reward" for one person might not be for another. One scientist simply said, "If I could have a reliable car to do my work that would be reward enough for me." So the idea of a "rewarding environment" was born. Hopefully you've all heard about it and have seen the changes that are slowly moving through the USGS.

The progress that has been made is the result of the leadership shown by my co-worker. I don't know how many of you know Janis Nash but she is my prime example of how someone "leads up." It was risky and it took a lot of courage and effort. And she did it while still being respectful, honoring the roles and the responsibilities of her senior managers, holding herself accountable and coordinating with others during it all. Throughout, she kept her senior managers informed and yet also held them accountable for what they said they would do. She did this quietly but with true passion and commitment. All in all, an extremely effective leadership style.


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