Sen. Thom Tillis (R.N.C.) was a management consultant before entering elective politics, and has used this background to help inform his decision-making as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel and to manage his Senate staff. In a conversation with Tom Fox, Tillis talked about how he promotes professional development of his employees and the approach he takes to ensure staff accountability. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your approach to managing your Senate staff.
We get our staff members to think about how they want to grow in terms of knowledge and skills. We have certain expectations about developing new skills, networking and seeking out professional development opportunities. I also have a requirement that every member of my staff interview for at least one job a year.
Why do you ask them to interview for other jobs? Do you want to encourage turnover?
Most of the staff members are relatively young and early in their careers. People move a fair amount. You probably have 25 percent attrition in most offices. So if you know that people are going to leave, you want to have a relationship with them that is trusting so that they can talk with you about the next opportunity and you can be a part of the process. They can do that if they know that we encourage people to look for other jobs and have those discussions as a natural part of their professional development. In some offices, it’s like the kiss of death if it is discovered that that one of the staff members is interviewing for a job. They should recognize that it is one of the single greatest ways to gain trust and actually retain your highest performing staff.
What are some other aspects of your management philosophy?
I am going to add another component—providing educational opportunities for the staff that would be nontraditional for a Capitol Hill office. I want them to think about completing either certificate work or advance studies. I want them to study Six Sigma, a methodology used to improve business processes.
The military invests heavily in professional development and training, but that is not the case for the federal civilian workforce. Can the military model be applied to the federal civilian workforce?
There is a perception among some that the way you progress in the federal workforce is just don’t die and longevity will secure advancement. I don’t think the vast majority of the civilian workforce wants to just put in their time and as people retire, move up. We have to have a high-performing workforce culture that provides extraordinary civilian employees the opportunity to advance at a faster pace. We have to do a better job of figuring out who are the true leaders and extraordinary performers, who are the above average performers, who are the average performers and who are below expectation performers. We need to let that drive all advancement polices, compensation and other things. I think that would provide a much more enriching environment for the civilian workforce.
What is the primary demand that you require from your staff?
Peyton Manning, one of my favorite football players, has said that pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you are doing. I tell my staff I want them to know what they are doing. I tell them I don’t ever want a question answered starting with the words, “I think.” If you think, then by definition you don’t know. So tell me you don’t know or tell me you’re looking for the answer. I want specific answers or I want to know that you don’t know. I don’t want to form an opinion on what you think, I want to form an opinion on what you know. Most of my staff actually realizes that I am pretty forgiving of people who are aggressive, work hard and maybe make mistakes. I am not the least bit forgiving when people don’t invest the time to get the right answers and actually know what they are talking about.
I understand you hosted a bipartisan Halloween dog costume contest in the Hart Senate Office Building this year. Did you do this just for fun or was there a larger purpose?
We need to build relationships with people who are not likely or 90 percent of the time not likely to support our political positions. The way you do that is connect at a personal level. The idea of having the dog costume contest was fun way for people to get together. If you become insular and if you only hang out with people who fundamentally have the same views, you are not going to grow or get things done. The staff needs to do that as well. The way that I was able to make it to partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers on a fairly short cycle is because I had a reputation for consensus building and working together and working as a team, not as an individual.
Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis and interviews in his Federal Coach blog.