Last week, I presented a day-long seminar on the mechanics of how to lead change and manage transition. Mid-level managers from various government agencies in the District of Columbia came together to discuss this timely topic.

The gathering was part of the District’s Program for Excellence in Municipal Management (PEMM), a “nationally accredited CPM program administered by the District of Columbia Department of Human Resources.” As the website states, PEMM is “designed to enhance the skills of the District government’s managers and

[to] provide them with the tools to be more effective leaders.”

Leading change and managing transition are certainly required skills for leaders in the District. I believe they are also pre-requisites for public servants at all levels of government in every corner of the country.

As Americans protest the homicide of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, it has once again brought forth appeals for justice and demands for change. Those calls to action will inevitably land in the hands of lawmakers, and the changes they enact will be administered by leaders in public-facing organizations. Change, ultimately, will be placed on the shoulders of those who are the targets of change.

The change that millions of Americans long to see won’t come easily. I was reminded of that by the conversation I had last week.

Twenty mid-level managers across various government agencies in the District of Columbia came together to explore the mechanics of change and the process of transition. I had the privilege of facilitating that conversation, and it proved to be very rich and thought-provoking.

While many of the issues we discussed were private, and shall remain private, I know that I can share some of the themes with you. I think they may prove to be instructive to other public servants who are faced with leading change and managing transition.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”]Change and transition have become synonymous with work in government, so get used to it.[/ut_highlight] There is a continuous cycle of senior leaders who rotate in and out of executive-level positions. The relatively short duration of their tenures make it difficult for real and substantive change to occur. Working in government requires a measure of patience and resilience that will test the endurance of even the most dedicated public servant.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”]Stay calm and stay focused on the mission.[/ut_highlight] Work in government requires an ability to remain calm and focused in the midst of what feels like wave after wave of transition. This is something that is easier said than done. It is particularly challenging for mid-level managers who find themselves torn between their front-line staff and their senior managers. When a mid-level manager becomes anxious and distracted, others notice, and it gives license to those who want to resist the change to do so more vehemently.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”]Rapid and continuous transition make it hard to stay committed. [/ut_highlight] When leaders at the top of a department or an agency seem more interested in advancing their career than they do with advancing the mission of an agency, it leaves the rank-and-file demoralized and demotivated. If the boss is not really with it, no one else will be with it either.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”]Apathy often stems from fatigue.[/ut_highlight] Relentless change can also lead to a permanent level of skepticism and a deep sense of pessimism that pervades many government agencies. Transitions that are particularly turbulent simply remind people of past experiences–many of which have left invisible scars. It is difficult to lead change and to manage transition when skepticism and pessimism abound. This is particularly true when there are questions about just how long the champion of your change initiative will be around.

[ut_highlight color=”#1e73be”]Finally, we discussed the ethics of abandonment.[/ut_highlight] When is it appropriate to quit on change? When can you truncate the transition? These are some of the most difficult dilemmas facing mid-level government leaders today. Unfortunately, there are far too many government agencies that are littered with abandoned change initiatives. Given the emotional impact on those who are left behind, is it ever appropriate to give up?

I’m not sure our group answered every question they raised. I’m not sure if they were emotionally satisfied by the conclusions they drew about change and transition either.

I do know this: leading change and managing transition inside of government requires a special mindset and an exceptional ability to see the impossible, to play from the soul, and to move the crowd.

I am encouraged by the leaders I met last week, and when they step out on to the stage, you will be too.


Chris Shorter, Chief Operating Officer of the D.C. Department of Health, shares his leadership story with the PEMM participants.