Welcome to our interview with Patrick Ross. A strategic communications veteran and entrepreneur, Patrick served in the Obama Administration as the Chief Communications Officer at the United States Department of Commerce’s United States Patent & Trademark Office.
Welcome Patrick, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0 conversation.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice is heard and matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Patrick Ross: It’s a really important question, and it’s something every leader and manager should be thinking about. I think one key is the word “ownership.” You see startups where the founders all have literal ownership in the company, and that invests them, but you obviously can’t do that across a broad enterprise.
“Ownership” has different meanings, but if somebody feels that they own something about their job and their role in an organization, then they’re going to be emotionally and mentally invested. So that could be recognizing somebody has a certain talent and has a desire to do a project and empowering them to do it. For example, Google used to do a one in five where they let an employee run with an idea. Or it could be that while something’s always been done one way, an employee has a different approach that works better for them. And if it meets the same end result meets, you allow the employee to own that approach.
Another example could be owning your schedule. Maybe a person faces a lot of life demands outside of work, for example, so they’re seeking flexibility in when they report to work or where. In that case, you can let them own they’re schedule if you’re meeting the enterprise’s needs. It’s looking for what ownership desires those employees have, and then trying to figure out how to meet them while still working as a team toward the greater goal.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Patrick: It’s important to remember that we’re all individuals, and I think Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager provides a lot of value here. Blanchard suggests you focus on individual employees using two scales. The first scale is the X axis, which is the level of direction and guidance you give. And the second one is the Y axis, which is the level of encouragement and enthusiasm you bring.
An employee working on a new project for them is at first very excited. They don’t need a lot of encouragement; they need a lot of guidance. Then they start hitting roadblocks and doubting themselves. To engage them more, you could start to provide less guidance as they start to get it. When they really get it, and they’re “cookin’,” you don’t need to do a lot of engagement or enthusiasm, but you have to recognize that maybe the employee will get a bit stalled or bored, and consider what could be their next challenge.
What it really comes down to is monitoring employees’ performance and morale. Managers need to know when to apply the appropriate level of guidance or encouragement and when to back off. You don’t need cheerleaders chanting in your ear every day if you’ve already gotten it. So direction vs. guidance and encouragement vs. enthusiasm are the two balances you need to calibrate.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Patrick: I suspect a lot of people have told you “Wanting to be appreciated.” On that front, let me speak about some of the internal communications campaigns I oversaw at the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO)—where we had 13,000 employees spread across all 50 states—and we climbed our way in the Partnership for Public Service’s independent rankings of Best Places to Work in Government to number one. One way we did that was recognizing that engaging employees goes beyond big cheerleading events.
We would host big town hall events. Leadership would come in and say, “You guys are all doing a great job!” But you know at least one person is sitting there is saying, “Well, I actually feel like I’m doing a good job and working hard, but this person next to me has been phoning it in. Where’s the recognition for me personally?”
I think many of us have also had those experiences where a boss walks into your cubicle or office and says, “Hey, you’re doing a great job. Congratulations!” And you’re thinking, “On what? What specifically have I done right? Did you just put on your Outlook Calendar, ‘Oh, now is the time I go tell Patrick he’s doing great!’”
There needs to be more targeted recognition, and this is where management comes in. A manager needs to know when an employee or team has excelled, or when an employee or team has gone above and beyond. That person or team needs to be applauded, in particular in front of peers and senior management. The old “employee of the month” photo on the wall is kind of cheesy, and you have to be careful about how you set guidance for that so people don’t feel resentful and suspect management is just playing favorites. But letting peers see how well a person is doing, and letting superiors know that this person or team is responsible for the accomplishment, is critical. It’s not just recognizing success, it’s doing it the right way.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Patrick: The key question I would always tell managers to ask and that I would ask myself is, “What obstacles exist that I can clear for you to help you better do your job?” Because there are always obstacles. It could be an individual blocking things. It could be organizational. Or it could be a lack of training or awareness of the employee or even understanding what’s expected.
A manager’s job is to clear obstacles, because as you’re higher up in the org chain, you’re probably going to have more authority and ability to do that. You can also with your better vantage point find solutions. You might recognize that “We can’t move that roadblock, but you know what? There’s a path over here that we can put you on.”
A lot of times employees don’t want to look like they can’t handle it or don’t know what they’re doing. Or they think, “I just need to figure this out.” In this case, they’re not going to proactively ask for help. They need to know that speaking up will be rewarded, not punished.
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Patrick: As I was saying, it does come down to trust. You want to make sure that they feel comfortable being able to ask questions. The key question that I think needs to be asked is, “What are your expectations of me?” So often and especially in the government, I’ve learned there is a very formal process for the conduct of performance reviews. I sometimes found myself as a supervisor realizing that there was some point very early on where there was a mismatch of what the employee thought they were supposed to be doing and what the manager thought was supposed to get done.
The employee might be afraid to ask, and the manager is making assumptions. So, the employee should continue to ask for clarifications such as, “I think our goal is X, and I think you’re asking me to reach there by Y. That’s a broad vision, but it could be more specific. For example they might say “You’re telling me I must staple the TPS report1, but previously you had given me authority to not to do a TPS report if I don’t have to. What should I be doing here?”
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Patrick: It’s related to what I was just talking about, “What is our ultimate goal here?” This question applies whether it’s a six-month or two-year project or whether you’re crunching something in a week. As you’re getting into details of the effort with all the different people involved in the enterprise, it’s important to ask what our ultimate goal is. It’s very easy to get sidetracked. And, of course, it’s very easy to recognize as you start going that maybe we need to change our goal.
I like the Lean Startup model by Eric Ries, where you’re constantly taking measurements and adjusting accordingly. If you think about it as a rising line on a chart, instead of going straight up and hoping you’re on the right track, you keep taking iterative steps down to review, making the line look like a bunch of sawtooth’s.
I’d use shorthand with employees, saying “We need to stop and do a quick sawtooth here,” to ensure we were still on track. So you want to take in data in real time to make sure you’re still on track, but as any entrepreneur will tell you, sometimes as you’re moving and measuring you realize that you’ve chosen the wrong goal entirely and need to change your approach. Better to learn that during the process rather than at the end.
But far too often, people in teams end up spinning their wheels and burning time without remembering why they’re doing it. Maybe it’s a cause that’s worthwhile, that’s noble, that’s going to make everybody feel proud of themselves. It’s important during those tough times to remember to say, “If we’re successful here, we’re going to have done something amazing—it’s going to change the world!” Having that little reminder can be very helpful.
Patrick: It was a tremendous honor to serve in a presidential administration for five years. I was a C-suite executive at a 13,000-person agency that was fully fee funded. We ran like a business, but we were part of a larger Commerce Department of 50,000 to 60,000 people.
I was also a White House appointee, which meant I was working very closely with the White House and with other political appointees. You don’t operate in a vacuum in the government, so often I was working with the State Department on treaties, or with the Justice Department on filings to the Supreme Court, or with the Interior Department over a conflict over trademarks for Yosemite. You just never knew. The key lesson was that you don’t make decisions on your own.
What I came up with as a mantra was, “If you’re going to do the right thing, you have to do it the right way.”
My first week on the job I discovered that my office oversaw the agency’s intranet home page. It had 60 buttons that lead you to all sorts of things. There was even a button for an update on carpet cleaning! It was insane and so useless. My employees told me, “We’ve wanted to change this for some time. We’ve got this model; there are only five or six buttons people really need. And I said, “Ok, just change it!”
Well, it caused a firestorm. Executives throughout the agency started saying, “My button’s gone!” They would demand its return. Well, we had data showing the buttons weren’t being used, nobody cared about them, but I did the change the exact wrong way. Finally, about four or five years later we got the nerve to revisit that change. We gathered data and figured out that there were other channels that people were getting this information from other than these stupid buttons on this home page. We then had conversations with the operational people, who would be involved in the things connected to these buttons. Then I had conversations with the C-suite people. We finally rolled the change out with just five buttons, and everybody said, “Wow! Look at Patrick’s shop, what great customer service!”
So like any entrepreneur or leader, I learned from my mistake. You need to learn who to consult. You need to learn who is owning and supervising the project. You need to learn who has ultimate approval authority. And you need to set a reasonable timeline so that you can effect change while avoiding complications. We accomplished a lot in the five years I was there, and it was because we recognized how to do it the right way.
1 “Staple the TPS Report” is a phrase from the movie Office Space. The movie opens with this poor beleaguered cubicle guy with 12 different bosses telling him, “You know what, we’re stapling the TPS reports now. Didn’t you get the memo?”
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