Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Saving the Secret Service

Failure to perform the most basic of protection functions for the President, his family, and world leaders visiting the President, is not acceptable.  Secret Service Director, Joe Clancy, was pointedly held accountable for his agency’s failures before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee on March 17.

Defending his being blindsided by agent misconduct, Clancy asserted, “I brought in my staff. We discussed why I didn’t know prior to this event. We had a good stern talk about that”.

Members of Congress from both parties were appalled at Clancy’s bureaucratic response to agent behavior and operational integrity. 

“This is my first test,” said Clancy.

Clancy is wrong on so many fronts.  The first test of a leader is their first interaction with their organization.  Even how they enter their headquarters for the first time is a test.  Tests of leadership occur every waking moment of a leader’s tenure.  To think otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand leadership.

Clancy admitted he was appointed to change the increasingly dysfunctional and unprofessional culture of the Secret Service.  He defended himself by noting his short tenure and that cultural change takes time.

“With all due respect, I’m just shocked by your testimony,” said Nita Lowey (D-NY). “Take time to change the culture? I don’t understand this one bit. It seems to me it should take time to help people who think this is the culture to get another job.”

Changing an organization’s culture is hard, but not impossible.  The challenge for Secret Service Director Joe Clancy is to actually want change, lead change, and embody the change.  He can learn from successful culture changes in the federal government.  There are only a few, but their lessons are universal. 


I was lucky enough to be on the leadership team that turned around the General Services Administration (36,000 employees), and to lead the team that forever changed the U.S. House of Representatives (14,000 employees). 

The Secret Service employs approximately 6,500 people, including 3,200 special agents, 1,300 Uniformed Division officers, and 2,000 technical, professional and administrative support personnel.   It is much smaller than the two strategic transformations that succeeded in creating immediate, tangible, and sustainable change.  There is no excuse for inaction.

Define the Promised Land

Change fails because there is no clarity of purpose.  A leader must visualize every aspect of a defined outcome.  A leader needs to see, hear, touch, and smell their end point and to understand the timetable for reaching it.  Whether the horizon is six months, a year, or three years, a leader must see that “Promised Land” and a general path to reach it.  Only then can a leader communicate that vision to others and to win converts who will assist them with the journey.


Gerald Carmen took the helm of the General Services Administration (GSA) on May 26, 1981.  His background as President & CEO of a regional network of auto supply dealerships gave him the clarity and common sense embodied in every successful small businessman.  He immediately visualized how core operational services and resources should be provided to the federal government and set about bringing on board an inner circle of experts who fundamentally grasped his vision.


I became the first Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the U.S. House of Representatives on January 3, 1995.  My experience included working with Carmen at the GSA, with Quality Management Guru Philip Crosby, and personally leading the transformation of smaller enterprises within the Peace Corps and the Federal Aviation Administration. I also had the advantage of absorbing the work of Jim Nussle’s House transition team.  Like Carmen, I quickly visualized the “Promised Land” and immediately set about recruiting an inner circle of experts who shared that vision.


A leader’s vision of the Promised Land should be their very first priority.  The only thing that is clear at the Secret Service is that the Clancy does not know where he or his agency is going.


Deploy Air Cover

A leader in government needs the backing of someone who will back their efforts early and often.  Only then will those they lead pay attention.  People both inside and outside the agency must realize that the change is a priority to those that matter and there is no hope for end running, appealing, stalling, or waiting out the effort.


President Reagan personally told Carmen he would have everything he needed to either shut down or transform the GSA within six months.  Speaker Gingrich placed ending corruption in House operations in his manifesto “Contract with America”.  Both Carmen and I constantly referenced our mandate and our patrons to embolden our change agents and allies.  Obama, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, except for some initial remarks, have been low key to the point of silence on changing the Secret Service.


Strike Hard & Fast 

Joe Clancy was appointed as acting director of the Secret Service on October 1, 2014, and became its official Director on February 18, 2015.  He had 168 days at the helm before his hearing.  Clancy took a small step in the right direction by reassigning at least four top officials to posts elsewhere in government. Little else was done.


Within his first weeks as GSA Administrator, Carmen forcibly reassigned a dozen top officials, leading to their resignations.  He elevated the three top whistle-blowers to key positions of leadership.  Within his first 100 days he had completely changed all the leaders of GSA, he had established a “War Room” to investigate and remove everyone associated with corruption, and he had created an Operations Center to implement and monitor business-based performance measures over every major GSA function.  Carmen had also begun implementing a strategic plan to run the GSA based on business principles and to use a combination of attrition and hiring freezes to flatten GSA’s layers of management and reduce its workforce from 36,000 down to 20,000.


In the first hour of my tenure as CAO, I fired the top 48 executives of House operations.  This lopped off the heads of everyone who had been complicit in, or ambivalent about, corruption.  Within the same hour, a team of outside experts became the “A Ring” for driving change.  By day 20, we had a strategic plan drafted for fundamentally transforming House operations.  By day 45, the CAO “A Ring” had detailed plans, complete with timetables and outcome measures, ready for 75 distinct reform initiatives.  By day 100, over two dozen of the reforms were already in place with the others awaiting committee approvals.


Unfurl Your Banners

Change requires ritual and symbolism.  Sun Tzu, the military genius of 4th Century B.C. China, stated it best, “In night-fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums, and in fighting by day, of flags and banners, as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army.”


At GSA, Carmen, within his first three months, resurrected a World War II war effort poster – the American Flag with the slogan “Give it your best”.  The poster went up throughout GSA headquarters.  Carmen constantly reminded employees that they worked for America and that they should always “give it their best”.  Handing out performance awards and recognitions further echoed this theme as did promotions.  It inspired increasing numbers of career employees to become fanatics about performance and service.


At the CAO, we adopted a credo drawn from top global service providers - “We are serving our country by serving our Congress” within the first 30 days.  Top global companies’ fundamentals of service excellence became the CAO’s “Contract with Congress”.  Wallet-sized hard cards were given to every CAO employee.  Training in service and operational excellence was provided to all.  Awards and recognition, as well as promotions, reinforced the new culture and won over legions of long time House employees to the new world of pride and performance.


The Secret Service, 168 days into Clancy’s tenure, has no organizing symbol or slogan to rally believers to the new order.


Cement Your Sand Castle

Real change must transcend its inception.  Changes must be irreversible.  Bridges back to the old ways must be burned or blown-up.  The Promised Land must be institutionalized through new position descriptions, new titles, new mission statements, new performance measures, and new incentives. Even new colors and office configurations play a role. 


At GSA, Carmen immediately moved out of the vast ceremonial office and turned it into a general meeting room.  He also repainted the hallways of the headquarters building (the color scheme remains to this day).  His “War Room” eliminated titles and operations that had outlived their relevance.  New mission statements and position descriptions were installed as he eradicated the old order.  All remain in place to this day.  When corruption tried to seep into the GSA twenty years later, career employees used to the new culture of integrity to blow the whistle, defending the integrity of the reinvented agency.


The Congressional reform removed and sold off furniture, and worked with the Architect of the Capitol to completely change spaces as operations were abolished, downsized, or privatized. New mission statements, position descriptions, core skill requirements, and performance measures were created as old ones were removed or created where none had previously existed.  Twenty years and two partisan changes later, everything remains in place.


The Secret Service, and Director Clancy, have much to learn and much to do – if they are truly sincere.


[Scot Faulkner served as Chief Administrative Officer for the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a member of Carmen’s GSA Executive team.]



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