Guest blog written by Theresa Burnett
This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.
I came to the program thinking I had a good idea about how to make things happen in the workplace. I had some idea of policy implementation and the challenges of government organizations. All that said, I learned that I did NOT have an organized, step-by-step approach to address the myriad of challenges of this work. From what I have learned from others in the program, the situation we face in a U.S. District Court of New Jersey is not unique. I thought I was probably going to embark on some major training program that could be imposed from on high to the masses.
Wow, was I wrong.
There are so many things I learned in the last six months that it is difficult to name them all. I had become frustrated in my position as it seemed as though I had a small sphere of influence to make changes in a workplace that I value so highly. I came to realize that I had more influence than I thought because of the success of a Succession Development Program implemented three years ago. My authorizers perceived it a success because we completed this two year program, not necessarily for any objective reason. I consider it a success because out of the last eight supervisors promoted, seven successfully competed that Program. We were on to something but we weren’t exactly sure what. I chose the IPP team from that group, asking them: what do we need to do to plan for the workforce of the future District Court? How do we create jobs that millennials want? How do we get employees to be proactive on the job, solving problems, suggesting improvements, taking work off of their supervisors, not merely doing what they are told? How do we support managers/ supervisors so we can stem the tide of early retirements, resignations and burn out without implementing a program every two years in a panic?
I began what the team jokingly refers to as “Theresa’s listening tour.” I finally stopped reading the literature (OK, not entirely) and started asking questions. I had the team work on the first fishbone exercise with me. I had them ask their staff: what is needed for employees to do their best work for the Court? I asked the same of the other supervisors who aren’t on the Team. And I was surprised at how they really opened up. They appreciated that I asked and listened. Then I implemented what I could quickly, and again, they showed an increased connection to the work and to what I was asking.
Oh boy, maybe some of the problems related to how managers/supervisors feel about the work is in part my fault (and other senior managers’) who think because we have been around a long time, we have heard/seen it all. We assume that everyone understands the importance of the work. We assume that we know best since we have been caring about the Court for decades. No wonder millennials say “OK Boomer.” So, I would say a key learning has been to more freely admit that I don’t have the answers but show that I care enough to keep asking (why, why, why, why, why) and listening. I have seen a change in supervisors who see that we are trying some of their ideas, ie, quarterly video conference meetings for all staff at once in the different offices, training and individual coaching sessions for supervisors, more training opportunities for entry level staff, more communication about the budget situation (even when all I can tell them is that we won’t know until December 21st). The Team members reported some of the same: that just starting the conversation with staff has made a difference, and they in turn have become more aware of what staff need. It seems that just the act of asking and listening and trying is changing the workplace.