Maintaining Mission Focus in the Era of Process and Lattes

If you are a public servant, it is very likely that you did not choose your career path for fame or fortune. Instead, you are most likely driven by your agency’s mission and your dedication to serving the public. But no matter how devoted you are, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the numerous processes in the federal government and long for some of the perks that private-sector companies offer.

When this happens, it is critical that you reconnect with your mission focus. Colonel Dale White, Air Force Acquisition Officer and Senior Material Leader opened this year’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit with some insights on how to do just that.

White started off his discussion by explaining the two biggest hindrances to government are focusing too heavily on processes and what he called, the Gucci environment. While processes are important to getting things done in government, leaders must be mindful to not allow them to become the mission themselves. Additionally, government leadership must be wary of assuming that workplace perks will make employees happier and therefore ready to drive the mission. Instead, White explained that giving employees meaning to their work will bring more focus to the mission.

Driving mission doesn’t mean you have to eliminate processes. However, it is critical that agency leaders avoid process paralysis that sees them getting so focused on how things are getting done, that the mission ends up taking a back seat. “Managers and leaders end up being held accountable to efficiently produce short term results, so they are held accountable to the metrics, then their mission becomes a metric, and then the metric becomes the culture, and the mission is now in the backseat,” White said. “Process is important and good process is key to mission success, but it is a means to an end, not the end itself.”

In that same vein, workplace perks like lattes and snacks are nice, but agency leaders cannot rely on them to inspire their employees to drive the mission. “The dirty little secret of all the extra perks are that they do not retain or attract people or even sway people from leaving,” White explained while quoting Lastzlo Bock, Former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google. Instead, connecting each employees’ job to something meaningful increases productivity.

It is critical that agency leaders focus on their people instead of processes and perks because these alone cannot get things done at an organization. White explained that it can be easy to convince yourself that as a government employee you have to be defined by the processes. However, it is crucial to constantly remind yourself that while process is key to achieving the mission, it is not and should not become the mission. “People solve problems, if you reach the people, you achieve the mission,” he said.

However, people can still get frustrated by the process. When this happens, White recommended to remember how much of an impact you can have. “When you start at the bottom your sphere of influence is about 100 meters wide,” he said. “Own that 100 meters and that one piece of process that you have and make a difference, and when you get promoted you’ll have more space to influence.”

If you choose to continually keep owning the space you occupy, you will get to a position where you are the leader and have an opportunity to own all of the space to make a difference. White concluded, “You can make a difference. Right now, it may only be for you but in the future it can be for others.”