Five years ago, I rejoined the US Department of Defence (DoD) High Performance Computing Centre in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as its director. I had left two years earlier; having spent my entire career there, I needed to have new experiences. But I also left because the organization was dominated by deep, long-standing conflicts between the IT staff and its outsourced contractors. It doesn't take long for that kind of environment to wear you down. My own attitude had worsened to the point that I was becoming part of the problem. It was definitely time to move on.
I had been an individual contributor with a minor leadership role — managing the small, in-house staff that oversaw the contractors. When the leadership of the supercomputing centre's parent organization changed, I was asked by the director to return as the supercomputing centre's leader. I wasn't the least bit sure it would turn out well. But I had voted with my feet once, and I was eager for the challenge of creating something better.
Empowering my staff — giving them authority to make decisions about their work — was the most valuable single thing I did to unlock the talent in my organization
My team was full of talented, dedicated, hardworking people with extraordinary gifts that had not been cultivated. The role of the supercomputing centre had evolved over the years, but the staff had not been realigned. Rather, as new tasks were assigned from the top, many staff members ended up with jobs for which they weren't well suited. But reorganizing them wasn't enough. In the years before I left we had spent a lot of time focused on the administrative activities endemic to large government programs and not enough time building teams, sharing ideas and focusing on the future. When I came back on board, we were competing for funds, new projects and recognition with five other DoD supercomputing centres. Although historically we had been in a strong position to win new work, that was starting to change. Most of the team needed training in soft skills that would help members communicate their ideas to each other and to our business colleagues. I needed to turn 100 complainers, watchers and waiters into leaders.
The guiding principle of my effort was to wake up and put to work the talent that I knew existed within both the in-house staff and the contractor organizations. My method was to set an example by modelling the three practices I knew the team needed to engage in to turn us around: good communication, decisiveness and attention to the basic skills necessary to succeed at any career.
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