By William Leighty, partner in DecideSmart, LLC, senior strategic advisor to the dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, and formerly chief of staff to Governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia
Early in my career when I served as a staff person in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I never hired, fired, or did an employee evaluation. Then I woke up one morning as the Deputy Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, a 1,200-person organization. Puzzled at what my first actions should be, I decided to introduce myself to the individuals who reported to me. I strolled through the agency introducing myself and asking two questions: “What do you do here and how do you know you are doing a good job?” In one work unit I was told they processed something called “DMV form 43s.” The key, people explained to me was to keep less than a six-week backlog of these forms. If they did that, no one would bother them. I was unimpressed to hear that their primary performance measure was the length of their backlogs and I decided to learn more. I visited the stockroom and obtained a form DMV 43. It turned out to be a “Certificate of Habitual Offender Status.” The Virginia DMV would issue the DMV 43 to the local prosecutor when a driver was found to have driven while intoxicated for a third time. The result: the driver would lose their license for the rest of their life. Processing DMV 43s, notwithstanding backlogs, was potentially a matter of life and death for other drivers on the road. Soon thereafter, a Virginia State Trooper was visiting me regarding a highway safety grant he was pursuing from DMV. I asked him to accompany me to the work unit. Resplendent in his uniform, he entered the offices and asked what was done there. When they answered, he was visibly impressed and began telling the work unit how state troopers use the DMV 43 certification process to locate and bring in these convicted drivers. He inquired if it was possible to get a list of the “worst of the worst” generated by the seven Virginia State Police divisions so that each Monday morning the division First Sergeant could task troopers with locating these potentially deadly drivers. A few weeks later the President of the Virginia Chapter of the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers visited me and I repeated the process. When she asked the supervisor what they did in that unit she became teary eyed and lost her composure momentarily. She turned to the whole unit and expressed her gratitude for what they did every day. Then she related a story of a thirteen-year-old girl who was recently killed by a man with 8 DUI convictions and said, “If you all could just do your work a little faster you could be saving people’s lives.” After that emotional visit, when you asked the employees in that work unit what they did, they answered, “We save people’s lives!” The work unit began posting charts of their progress noting which prosecutors were the most efficient and which state troopers were the most active. There is an entirely different motivation for employees going to work each morning to save people’s lives than to reduce a six-week backlog. Yet, in the name of efficiency, government tends to segregate the work processes into smaller and smaller specialized units. In doing so we also segregate the employees from the purpose of their work. The leader’s role is “link” employees to the true purpose of their work. At its core public service is noble. The most important leadership lesson I ever learned is that it is the leader’s responsibility to make that service meaningful to the employees. Postscript: The DMV43 work unit became so engaged in “saving people’s lives” that they put forth a proposal to put computers on every judge’s bench, automating habitual offender process and eliminating the need for their own work unit. When I became the director of the Virginia Retirement System the very first work unit that I introduced myself to told me they were responsible for processing VRS form 1501s and that if they kept less than a six-week backlog no one bothered them. I immediately knew I had work to do!