Formerly Chief Counsel of the California Department of Human Resources
Q: What are some best practices for leaders?
A: First, "walk the walk" and model the exact behavior that you expect from your employees. If you're asking your employees to work long hours, then you need to work long hours.
Second, take responsibility for the actions of your unit. What this really means is -- don't throw anyone under the bus. If someone did something wrong, do not blame them. Your job as a supervisor and manager is to take responsibility for the unit.
Third, always give credit to other people for the work they do. If someone prepared a report for you, make sure you publically acknowledge the person who did the actual work.
Fourth, be flexible. Let the people who work for you know that you understand and accommodate a work life balance. The relationship between a supervisor and an employee is a bargain in which the employee is productive and in exchange they receive not just a salary but also a supervisor who is supportive and works at making the job manageable.
Fifth, follow up on what you say you're going to do. If you are a new manager or supervisor and you promise that you are going to take the time to meet with each employee individually, then make sure you actually do it. If the reality is that you won’t have time to meet individually with 150 employees, then don’t promise something you can’t deliver. The failure to honor a promise is something that people don’t easily forget and it ultimately undermines your credibility.
Q: What’s the most important advice for new leaders?
A: Be honest. People can almost always detect when you're insincere or disingenuous. If you are fair and straight with people, you will establish credibility with your employees. If you’re not, eventually people stop listening to you.
Q: How do you build collaborative relationships within a department?
A: To build collaborative relationships you need to model, encourage and reward collaboration within your own organization. Remind people continually that they are a team working toward a shared goal. They’re not just a team in a single unit or division. The organization itself is one team that crosses division and programmatic lines. It's critical to form relationships both within and across separate department programs. I think of this as, "An organizational opportunity to pay it forward." Whenever possible, look for opportunities to create bonds between units. When people ask a favor, I try to help them. I loan staff to other programs; I give equipment and offices to other divisions, I’ve even given positions to other divisions because it models the values and team work you want throughout the organization.
Q: Did you face any particular personal challenges in your career?
A: I think it is often difficult for employees in the workplace to balance raising a family or caring for relatives with trying to promote or develop a career. The challenges of this experience sometimes make us feel like we aren’t particularly successful at either endeavor. When I was raising my family, I had many days in which I was carpooling my own and other children in the back of my car while simultaneously attempting to conduct conference calls. The children would be in the backseat laughing, singing or even yelling and I’d just keep talking right over them, hoping my client couldn’t hear. It was constant chaos in those years. Now many years later as a manager, my own experience has helped me realize how important it is to create a work environment that encourages career growth while accommodating the personal lives of employees. I always try to keep those challenges in mind when I make decisions that will impact the lives of the employees with whom I work.
This interview with Joan Markoff was conducted on January 9, 2013 and has been edited and condensed.