By Mary Margaret Yodzis 

Three distinguished public servants reflected on their careers and offered leadership insights at AGA’s National Leadership Training (NLT), held Feb. 12-13, 2020, in Washington, D.C.  Their consensus: a leader must listen, learn, understand risks, and communicate effectively.

“Things are changing all the time and getting more and more complicated. A leader must be willing to change and adapt, be ready to do the new things coming your way. You can’t be looking in the rearview mirror. You have to look to the future,” said Lee Loftus, assistant attorney general for administration in the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the face of widespread change, leaders safeguard their teams’ health. “An individual leader can do a lot to make sure the work environment is a positive one,” noted Dave Mader, former controller of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, now a partner at Deloitte. “In my experience with multiple bosses, I observed how they acted as leaders and how I felt as a result. I decided to emulate certain traits that really made me feel good or inspired me and pushed me forward, and I tried not to do certain things I saw that had a negative effect.”

Honest communication with the team is critical for success in change management, according to Sallyanne Harper, CGFM, now a professor and member of the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB). “Honestly telling your team what you know, how you know it, and what your plan is going forward — I don’t think you can do too much of it. Being visible, moving through the organization, allowing people to ask the questions they have, and being honest if you don’t have the answers.”

It is also important during change, said Loftus, to remind financial teams of their value. “Remind your people that the work we do is important. We’re here to keep the place running. I often hear people say government is ‘a nice safe career.’ No, it absolutely is not! We are responsible for billions of dollars of other people’s money. That’s a big deal, and we must take it seriously. We have the personal data of millions of people; and that’s a huge responsibility. There’s no safety in that. I look at our jobs as roles of responsibility. You get to work on important things; you get the chance to make things work for the country. It’s a big deal to do it and do it well.”

Accepting and understanding risk is also part leadership in the profession, added Harper. “If you’re not making decisions, you’re not going to get anything done. Risk is inherent when you make those decisions. The key is to manage the risk. For example, there is risk with innovation. It’s important we don’t put safety over innovation if we’re going to accomplish the missions of our agencies. But you must manage the risk and understand your culture, its risk tolerance, and the environment in which you are trying to implement innovation.”

Daily life also includes risk-taking, noted Mader. “You don’t make progress unless you try new things, and when you try new things, there is risk. The difference in being reckless and taking prudent actions is knowing what the risks are.”

Once risk is accepted, the next step is to get the job done, Loftus said. “In my career, it was worth its weight in gold to observe people who really got things done. I developed relationships with these folks, and I very quickly discovered that I was going to learn a lot more by listening than by talking to them. There are a lot of smart people, but smart is not synonymous with solving problems and getting things done. The most valuable people in an organization are the problem-solvers. They’re smart, too, but they have a unique ability to see through the problems, see what needs to be done, and actually get things done.”

Among other lessons shared by the panel, Mader emphasized team-building: “You have to bring other people in the organization along in the decision-making. Don’t do it yourself. Learning goes both ways.” Harper noted leaders must bear responsibility “to absorb risks so their people can do the work they need to do.  Leaders must also communicate a vision, to walk the talk of the core values of the organization, to model behaviors we want to see.”

Loftus stressed the importance of understanding the way things are done at senior levels to develop personal leadership skills. “Learn how to play in that arena. Prepare for the next level, look forward and upward. And get out and meet your colleagues, like you’re doing here at NLT. Find out what’s going on and learn from the community. It’s a great resource.”

“Remember,” added Harper, “there is a career ahead of you that you can’t see if you stay where you are.”