Government leadership conversation series: Part four

A conversation with Towanda Brooks, chief human capital officer, Department of Housing and Urban Development

​Interview blog series by David Dye, managing director Deloitte Consulting LLP Federal Human Capital practice, with Federal government leaders to discuss their personal leadership journey, their agency's approach to leadership development, and the human capital challenges faced by the government.

In 2017, Deloitte and Senior Executives Association published the State of Federal Career Senior Leadership Survey to analyze trends in three key areas that can drive agency transformation: The leadership pipeline, executive readiness, and transformational leadership. In this blog series, David Dye, director in the Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Federal Human Capital practice, continues the conversation by interviewing leaders in the Federal government to discuss their personal leadership journey, their agency’s approach to leadership development, and the human capital challenges facing the government at large.

Today, Dave is speaking with Towanda Brooks. Towanda serves as the chief human capital officer (CHCO) for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and has been a member of the Senior Executive Service since May 2009. Ms. Brooks’ current responsibilities include leading the Department’s human capital management strategies, policies, and initiatives in support of HUD’s mission.

Dave Dye (DD): What’s most important to you around this topic of leadership?

Towanda Brooks (TB): It is important for me to acknowledge that leadership requires a strong sense of commitment and purpose as well as integrity, resilience, and courage. Demonstrating and modeling integrity are key to continuing a path of transformational leadership. I started at USDA, and I appreciated having a defined career path in Human Capital. I understood that if I did certain things and accomplished goals, it could take me places. I benefited from having a supervisor, who worked with me to help me understand what I needed to do to become a good employee and how that is different from being a leader. I learned the importance of developing yourself and knowing yourself as a person. If you don’t know who you are as a person, you can’t understand the dynamics of anything else. For me, that grounding at Agriculture was really inspirational and foundational.

DD: So you had help early on and had clarity around what a career path could really be. Our survey findings would say that’s not the typical experience. Almost 60 percent say there are developmental opportunities but only 36 percent say specific development needs are taken into account. What made it work for you?

TB: I did benefit from structure, and every opportunity I had for development, I took. Sometimes it was about seeing the potential and seizing opportunities. In 1995, Agriculture merged three HR organizations. I was a Classification Specialist faced with becoming an HR Generalist. We were moved into an office of cubicles and expected to thrive based on our knowledge, skills, and abilities. We had been trained to do our jobs. We had to become self-sufficient and hold one another accountable for the team’s results. By the time I became a GS-12, there was an opportunity for a 90-day detail as a GS-13 Team Leader. Everybody else sort of looked around, but I stepped up and took it. I learned early on that if you wanted something, this is how you get it. I knew all the terminology, all the requirements, and what I needed to do to advance. I sincerely believe that having a career path and following through on the training and development opportunities helped me during this transitional period.

DD: The results of our survey talk about the need for leaders to make a shift from technical to non-technical. Is there a strategy in place to help leaders do that? How much of it is self-direction?

TB: I think some of it is organic, but it must be intentional. I had a manager early on who sat down with me every day for feedback and training until he was comfortable with me handling my workload independently. He understood that his role as a supervisor was to train me to work independently. Federal Agencies should have a strategy in place to assist employees shifting to leadership roles. In addition to the technical skills, our Leaders should have strong interpersonal skills, communication ability, and coaching capacity. Leaders should be able to build coalitions, establish and set the vision, lead people and change, provide and receive feedback, hold employees accountable for results, and understand inclusion and unconscious bias. Established supervisory and managerial training, developmental programs and continual learning opportunities as well as providing self-paced training opportunities for employees to build capacity throughout their careers can help agencies ensure their workforce is ready to fill leadership positions with capable and skilled people. The agencies should be intentional with ensuring they are planning for the workforce of the future. Employees need to ensure they are preparing themselves fully for their journey to leadership.

DD: What advice do you have for getting leaders ready and helping them progress?

TB: I would recommend that leaders first understand that people management skills are imperative to leading a successful mission-focused organization that produces results. Knowing how to effectively provide feedback, motivate, and engage employees and hold them accountable to themselves and the organization’s goals and metrics is essential. Building trust and establishing the tone begins with the leader, and this expectation requires self-accountability.

Say you’re going to Veterans Affairs to lead a hospital. You need a degree, certifications, an understanding of medicine, whatever the technical skill is, but you also need to understand how to lead people, how to hold people accountable, how to engage the workforce to get them to do the work, and how to make sure customer service is valued. That’s a lot more comprehensive than the technical qualifications of being a phenomenal doctor.

You have to have soft skills and an appreciation for them. For me, I know I need to improve on receiving criticism. I know my triggers and what I need to do to close my skill gaps, and the only reason I know that is because of assessments and coaching.

DD: How do we get the right people into leadership positions?

TB: We absolutely have to stop selecting technical people for leadership positions in order to give them higher salaries. We really need to assess whether this technically brilliant, high-performing employee is cut out to lead others. We cannot continue to promote people to the Senior Executive Service (SES) who do not know how to lead others. Developing employees throughout their careers to have leadership capacity and skills can help federal agencies fill positions with the right people with the right skill set.

DD: What about doing a better job of identifying people who could be good leaders?

TB: Assessing the workforce and utilizing succession planning can significantly improve an organization’s ability to select and on-board candidates with the requisite leadership skill-sets. In addition, I suggest allowing employees to self-identify their desire to be a leader and providing them with development opportunities whether through rotations, formal training, coaching and mentoring, or taking courses online to improve their understanding of leadership competencies. This would strengthen a federal agency’s capacity to build a leadership cadre. At HUD, we have a Leadership Journey Guide, which provides guidance and a path to leadership to employees at all levels. Also, allowing your current leadership to interact regularly with the workforce and providing employees with key information about the leader’s journey and path to leadership provides tangible examples to employees.

We should put programs like these in place at an earlier stage for employees to engage.

DD: What would “leadership as a profession” mean to you?

TB: I like that! It means concentrating on leading people, taking the time to make that your career major. It’s not a collateral duty.

DD: We’ve been having a lot of discussion around how to measure leadership readiness and certify that someone is qualified to be a leader at whatever level.

TB: For the 2017 performance cycle, we put more weight back into the “leading people” element for our senior executives, so when we talk to executives they understand that spending more time on engaging and leading their workforce, performance management, cascading goals, and providing more frequent feedback are important. Because of consistent emphasis, I think our leaders are doing a better job of paying attention to their people and managing the workforce. In addition, our Chief Learning Officer has worked strategically to develop our agency’s Corporate Learning Plan. One aspect of the plan addresses leadership skills gaps and our approach to close the gaps through training, development, and executive development plans.

DD: If you were not budget-constrained, what would you do to take leadership development to the next level?

TB: I’d take our people off-site and get them in a different environment to shake them up. Some of our executives have been doing the same thing for so long that they’ve forgotten what leadership really is. They come to work every day and deliver the mission, but they are stuck in a rut. They need a leadership experience that is different from their day-to-day.

DD: What do you do to reach people earlier in their development so they aren’t exposed to leadership development until it is too late?

TB: I’m a big believer in developing a network of enterprise leaders. If you really want your organizations to thrive, you have to let your employees move around to other teams, other divisions, across your organization. Allow your employees to gain additional skills that interest them by working across the organization or with another executive. If you don’t have money for training, think about ways you could let your people gain skills by doing something different and design opportunities for your employees to grow. Allowing someone with potential to be an SES to broaden their perspective helps everyone.

DD: On a scale from 1-10, where are we in leader development?

TB: I’d say five or six.

DD: And what would it take to move that up two levels?

TB: Continual focus and remember to never give up! We must be innovative in our thinking and implementation. At HUD, we’re continuing to talk about the importance of culture and becoming a Best Place to Work. We are also doing the work. When I arrived at my organization there was a very negative culture because employees did not know what to expect. People didn’t look at each other. They weren’t a team. This is a reflection of the leadership. It is much better now because employees have a sense that they have a choice, an opportunity to contribute, and that leadership has positive aspirations to be better. Employees have knowledge and a path forward. Understanding that a culture can change if you make it important and put in the work to improve it. That has been satisfying.

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