We need leaders at all levels of the federal government. As the economic, political and demographic landscapes shift, those leaders must thrive in an ever-changing, digitally connected and transparent world. Developing leaders requires attention to workforce trends as well as flexibility and creativity.

How do public sector human resource personnel create and manage development programs for next-generation government leaders? Here are three keys to success.

1) Incorporate Cross-Training

The best leaders are developed by cross-training in multiple areas. New supervisors, mid-level managers (General Schedule, or GS, 8-12) and experienced senior leaders (GS 13-14) all must understand the diverse goals of the government and the citizens they serve. Each agency is interconnected to others – and to the public. Every department relies on personnel from other parts of the organization to support the agency’s mission. And every government leader must be able to build teams across organizations to achieve mission success.

Integrated into the leadership development program, cross training can start with education about related agencies and organizations via web-based and classroom training. Later, a developing leader may be temporarily assigned to work in other departments to gain a better understanding “from the inside out.” Leading cross-departmental and cross-functional teams is another tactic to gain skills and experience. Before achieving the highest levels of government leadership, most senior leaders are required to complete a rotation outside of their own organizations to demonstrate the application of practical leadership skills.

How necessary is cross-training? This recent Federal News Radio article highlights the interconnected nature of our federal government by identifying 14 cross-agency priority goals in the new President’s Management Agenda. Clearly, it takes cross-collaboration at the highest level to “deliver mission outcomes, provide excellent service to the American people and effectively steward taxpayer dollars.”

2) Ensure that Leaders Develop Leaders

Perhaps giving back is inherent in the nature of those called to government service. Or maybe successful leaders become inspired to give back after they find others to support them on their journeys. Regardless of motivation, the federal government is a firm believer in mentor programs. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) outlines the differences between mentoring and coaching, defines different levels of mentoring engagement and emphasizes the benefits of providing guidance, direction and career advice to others. OPM even published a Best Practices: Mentoring guide for mentors and mentees to get the most out of their relationships.

Washington D.C. federal government

It’s true that mentoring offers a low-cost approach for broadening a leader’s perspective. But cost is far from the only reason to encourage mentoring. Leadership competencies are often more easily gained through example, guided practice or experience than by traditional education and training.

Mentors can pass on institutional knowledge and offer insights that broaden a leader’s perspective. Many mentors are paired with mentees from outside their technical area of expertise, as one way to encourage mentees to be themselves – away from the scrutiny of a direct supervisor.

Advice to mentees? This Forbes article advises: 1) Be The Real You, 2) Listen Completely and 3) Live And Learn.

3) Provide a Series of Teachable Moments

Replacing poor performers is expensive. There are costs to recruit and train someone new. And productivity is lost while the position is unfulfilled. Those costs go up when the poor performer is in a leadership position.

Instead, strong government leadership programs place aspiring leaders into a series of progressively responsible leadership positions. With the support of a mentor, the goal is to put young leaders into positions where they can show what they do, so weaknesses may be identified and addressed.

As Avilar CEO Tom Grobicki recently explained, “People make mistakes. They need to understand why they failed and address the problem. Ideally, it’s a teachable moment.”

When the point of the exercise is to fail, learn and grow – rather than perform flawlessly – young leaders have a safe place to try new skills and techniques. Once their skills and competencies are better developed, they can take on more responsible roles with confidence.

How can federal agencies foster leadership within their organization? Start by understanding this: government organizations do not operate alone. Nor do successful government leaders.

If your government agency, association or corporation is thinking about improving its leadership development program, please let us know. We’d be happy to share how we’ve helped others and discover whether we can support you, too.

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