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Beneath the floor: Bringing best leadership practices to congressional offices

Over the last 20 years I’ve consulted for more than 50 private sector organizations, from the world’s largest multinationals to small family-run businesses. I systematically observe and analyze dynamics like the leadership’s conduct, policies, procedures, job descriptions, reporting relationships, staff perceptions, and specific and general office culture. As an outsider, I’m unfettered by biases and baggage carried by the organization. I’ve seen a lot of troubled firms, but nothing prepared me for how congressional offices disregard fundamental leadership and management principles.

One reason for the dysfunction? There is entirely too much deference in congressional offices. House and Senate members are almost inevitably referred to by title and surname, and exercise absolute decision power, even in arenas outside their expertise. Research shows that highly formal and authoritative climates stultify progress by placing a premium on hierarchy. In contrast, private-sector executives encourage frank, even casual, interchange by insisting upon critical evaluation from the entire staff. This makes challenging ideas the norm, and from the resulting tension innovation emerges.

Another sorely absent practice is strategy formulation. No members I’ve worked with set objectives for the current term (other than being re-elected), much less concrete timetables or explicit accountability for following through. The result is a reactionary response to the whims and winds of politics, which leaves both members and staffs fighting off alligators when they’re there to drain the swamp (a metaphor especially apt for Washington). I’ve asked every member I’ve worked with this question: “When you leave office, what would you like your legacy to be?” None has had an answer.

Private sector firms go to great lengths to develop a precise strategy and mission, assigning elements to whomever is best suited, and reviewing progress throughout the year. This way, those firms stay on course. You have to know where you’re going in order to get there.

Internal operational assessment is also deficient. The governance of an office — what staff’s job is, whom they report to, and how they should execute their work — has been ordered organically, so much so as to become amorphous. To be sure, smaller operations should stay flexible. But the lack of clarity in assignments, coordination between functional areas like legislative, communications and scheduling, and accountability, can turn to debacle.

Performance appraisals are another key ingredient missing in congressional offices. The ones I’ve seen from these offices are, frankly, limp — bereft of crucial dimensions like teamwork, initiative and follow-through. How is “contribution to strategy and mission” audited if there are no such things? A solid appraisal process enables benchmarking against key standards, provides insight into individual capability, job fit and talent portfolios, and serves as the source for reassignment, dismissal, planning and development.

Internal assessment is a routine undertaking in most organizations, be it review of organizational structure to assure its alignment with strategic objectives, or querying staff about their satisfaction and professional direction. To know where you are is to know what to change.

Another shortcoming of congressional offices is the process of identifying and addressing gaps in staff competency through training, development or educational experiences. Not only does this provide a platform for continuous learning and improvement, it also makes people feel valuable. The private sector spends billions on this every year, for good reason.

The members of Congress with which I’ve worked have, universally, been devoted, ethical, hardworking public servants who care about the nation. The same goes for their staff. Moreover, the offices are not over-funded or bloated; if anything, they are strapped and understaffed. I’ve encountered some wonderfully run offices, some that were willing to learn, and some that are irresolutely set in their counterproductive ways.

Why are congressional offices so distressingly amiss in these basic practices of leadership? Most members don’t come from a business-minded background, and if they do they’re too busy with politics to make running an office a priority. As we say in the private sector, the best performer is not necessarily the best organizational leader. This holds true in Congress: The best legislator is not necessarily the best office leader.

Leadership starts at home. If congressional offices would look internally and adopt valuable lessons from the private sector, they could dramatically improve their operations — and perhaps the business of the nation. What happens before the floor is as essential as what happens on it.

James R. Bailey is the Tucker Professor of Leadership and chair of the Department of Management at the School of Business, George Washington University, and a fellow in the Centre for Management Development, London Business School.

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