Memo to Andy Lack From A Disgusted, Yet Hopeful VOA Journalist

BBG Watch Guest Commentary

BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from a current Voice of America journalist who prefers to remain anonymous.

We must apologize to the writer and to Mr. Lack for not posting the memo/commentary immediately after we had received it shortly before October 1. Occasionally our volunteer editors misplace a submission among hundreds of emails they work with. This is what happened in this case. Fortunately, we were alerted to our oversight. We are happy to post this “memo.”

As a lesson for the future for us and for our contributors, if you send us an article, please check with us if it is not posted within a few days.

Views expressed here are only those of the authors and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.

We invite those with opposing views and others who want to comment on this or other issues followed by BBG Watch to submit their op-eds for consideration.

Anonymous

Memo

To: Andy Lack

From: A Disgusted, Yet Hopeful VOA Journalist

Date: October 1, 2014 / Day One of a New Fiscal Year

Subject: Trust

Congratulations on your appointment as the first CEO of US international broadcasting. I hope you accept the job. You are the kind of experienced and successful media executive none of us thought would ever take the job.

On the off chance you haven’t been told how broken the relationship is between VOA’s employees and their leaders, I am presenting the following information. No leader wants to be blindsided. Consider this an attempt to open your eyes wide to the challenges that await you.

First know that you will soon be in charge of a storied but demoralized and dysfunctional federal agency whose employees do not trust their managers, supervisors, mid-level managers and senior managers. The disgust is palpable, the tension obvious.

You’ve got a lot of work to do, and quickly, if you want to improve the situation, which has reached a crisis stage.

But I assume you know that. Surely BBG Chairman Jeff Shell, who reportedly recruited you, didn’t lie to you and tell you all was well and that all the agency needed was a little tweaking.

Even as you prepare to remove the agency’s senior leaders all the way down to the division level, you must simultaneously work to rebuild the trust of the journalists and support staff who make Voice of America run. There is virtually no trust between these workers and the agency’s leaders, many of whom have been at VOA since the days of typewriters and ashtrays. Few, if any, of them would have ever had successful careers in commercial broadcasting. They are clerks, paper-pushers well-versed in surviving in a federal agency. They have been rewarded for their fecklessness, lack of creativity and ability to lay low. Many of the good leaders, or those who could have been good leaders, have been forced out or jumped, disgusted by the pettiness and incompetence of the leaders who remain. The path to promotion in the agency is a very different one than the path to success in commercial broadcasting. The very traits that get you fired in the real world get you promoted here.

There are some specific, practical steps you should take immediately.

You should call a series of mandatory town halls. Shut down the agency for a day, except for news for broadcasts, websites and social media, and call for a reset. Acknowledge that the agency is in an existential crisis; don’t give us a typical, rah-rah, things are not as bad as some critics say they are speech. Don’t sugarcoat things and tell us how great we are and how great the agency is – we already know what’s working. We don’t need anyone to tell us that. Tell us what isn’t. Do that and you’ll immediately have credibility with us. We work in Washington. We deal with bureaucrats and politicians all day. We know what bull**it sounds like. Don’t bull**it us.

Move immediately to beef up the newsroom; put content creators at the top of the pecking order and give them what they need. I promise you if you do that they will produce. Reduce first-shift staffing. Increase second- and third-shift staffing. The newsroom needs to function when our overseas audiences are awake and ready to consume news. This should not be a Monday-Friday 9-5 operation, for goodness’ sakes.

Meet with the three unions in the agency. Give them concessions immediately. Partner with them.

Quickly take control. Establish new protocols. Tell everyone to call you “Andy.” Announce management changes within your first week in office. Announce plans to spend one day a week in the newsroom for your first few months in office. Announce plans to spend one day in each of the language services over the next three months. Tell us when you eat lunch and where, and tell us we are welcome to join you. (Don’t worry – we’ll buy our own lunch, but we won’t object if you buy our drinks and dessert.) And let managers and supervisors know they are not welcome at those lunches. Identify the good, courageous managers and supervisors (there are a few, mostly at the branch level) in the agency and mentor them. Prepare them to enter the ranks of senior leadership.

Spend as little time as possible with the agency’s current senior leaders. They aren’t going to be in their positions for very long anyway, once you see them in action.

Drop in to the language services unannounced. Sit. Listen. Bring pizza.

In your initial interviews of the senior leaders you will soon realize you must quickly fire, ask them what happened to the following initiatives announced with such fanfare by the senior leaders:

· Launchpad

· Workplace Engagement and Workplace Engagement Committees

· Town Halls

· Face Time

· Leadership Training

New employees were warned by long-time employees that the workplace engagement effort launched almost two years ago was going to turn out to be a farce – window-dressing forced on the agency’s senior leaders. It turned out they were right; workplace engagement was a series of empty promises, a top-down response from an unmotivated senior leadership that quickly fell by the wayside, just as so many long-time employees predicted it would.

It’s not that the attempts to raise morale have “lost momentum,” as one top agency leader noted in a public meeting some months ago; it is that there is no momentum, no movement. (And, no, in case anyone was thinking of asking, ice cream socials don’t count.)

The agency’s leaders appear befuddled; they don’t seem to know the first thing about improving employee morale, and seem to believe that poor morale doesn’t affect the performance of the mission. New employee morale rankings from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) should be out shortly. [Initial results have just been published.] These should be the final nail in the coffin in which the careers of the agency’s current leaders lie.

As you well know, or will soon find out, it isn’t easy to manage people – especially in a federal agency with pre-boomers, boomers, Gen-Xers and millenials fighting over content and presentation. And it certainly isn’t easy to manage journalists, who can be cynical, overly sensitive, insecure and, by nature and training, untrusting of authority figures. And if you overlay the challenges of managing journalists with the legal protections VOA journalists are afforded as federal employees, it can be darned near impossible.

But near impossible means just that – near. It isn’t impossible. It just requires a lot of work. It takes sensitivity, training, creativity, a willingness to take risks and a willingness to support your reporters in the face of criticism from higher-ups. Instead, the agency is stuck with hidebound, calcified, clueless, weak-kneed and often befuddled bureaucrats. It has clerks where it needs leaders. These are not people who can be trained to do better; they have embraced the dysfunction that permeates the place and do not want the system to change, not least because they have thrived in it. And, deep down, they must know that they would not be welcome in any other federal agency and certainly not in commercial broadcasting. They will fight you while they smile at you and promise to implement your changes. They will try to hang on with everything they’ve got. They know they’ve got no-place else to go. But you’ve dealt with their kind before. Not in a federal agency, no, so it will be a bit of an adjustment for you. But you’ll do what needs to be done, as you always have. Just do it sooner rather than later. We’ve been suffering for a long time. We’d appreciate some relief.

This may be the toughest assignment of your career. But it may also be the most satisfying. Do it right and you will forever be known as the man who saved VOA. Not a bad line in one’s obituary, I’d say.

###

Significant Declines in OPM 2014 Employee Survey for BBG Senior Leaders’ Skills and Agency Management (Federal Government Entities Only)

 
 

I recommend my organization as a good place to work. 6.36% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

In my organization, senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce. 2.89% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

My organization’s leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity. 4.79% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders. 6.22% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

How satisfied are you with your involvement in decisions that affect your work? 6.78% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what’s going on in your organization? 2.27% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a good job? 5.96% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

How satisfied are you with the policies and practices of your senior leaders? 3.9% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job? 5.16% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

I have sufficient resources (for example, people, materials, budget) to get my job done. 2014 Percent Positive: 29.60%. 2013 Percent Positive: 35.12% 5.52% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

Promotions in my work are based on merit. 2014 Percent Positive: 28.15%. 2013 Percent Positive: 28.52% 0.37% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

Creativity and innovation are rewarded. 2014 Percent Positive: 28.47%. 2013 Percent Positive: 30.11% 1.64% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

In my work unit, steps are taken yo deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve. 2014 Percent Positive: 23.85%. 2013 Percent Positive: 25.28% 1.43% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal. 2014 Percent Positive: 45.20%. 2013 Percent Positive: 46.69% 1.49% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

Pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs. 2014 Percent Positive: 14.61%. 2013 Percent Positive: 15.38% 0.77% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 
 

BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS

2013 AND 2014 FEDERAL EMPLOYEE VIEWPOINT SURVEY RESULTS COMPARED

 
 

Recommend Organization As A Good Place to Work

2013

I recommend my organization as a good place to work. Percent Positive 2013 - 46.42%

 2014

I recommend my organization as a good place to work. Percent Positive 2014 - 40.06%

 

6.36% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

Commitment Of Senior Leaders To Workforce

 

2013

In my organization, senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce. Percent Positive 2013 - 32.36%

 2014

In my organization, senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce. Percent Positive 2014 - 29.47%

2.89% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 

High Standards Of Honesty And Integrity By Organization’s Leaders

2013

My organization's leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity. Percent Positive 2013 - 41.79%

 2014

My organization's senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity. Percent Positive 2014 - 37.00%

4.79% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 

Respect for Senior Leaders

2013

I have a high level of respect for my organization's senior leaders. Percent Positive 2013 - 45.75%

 2014

I have a high level of respect for my organization's senior leaders. Percent Positive 2014 - 39.53%

6.22% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 

Employee Involvement

2013

How satisfied are you with your involvement in decisions that affect your work? Percent Positive 2013 - 45.41%

 2014

How satisfied are you with your involvement in decisions that affect your work? Percent Positive 2014 - 38.63%

6.78% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 

Information Sharing By Management

2013

How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what's going on in your organization? Percent Positive 2013 - 38.99%

 2014

How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what's going on in your organization? Percent Positive 2014 - 36.72%

2.27% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 

Management Recognition of Employee Achievement

2013

How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a good job? Percent Positive 2013 - 41.77%

 2014

How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a good job? Percent Positive 2014 - 35.81%

5.96% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 

Employee Satisfaction With Policies and Practices of Senior Leaders

2013

How satisfied are you with the policies and practices of your senior leaders? Percent Positive 2013 - 32.81%

 2014

How satisfied are you with the policies and practices of your senior leaders? Percent Positive 2014 - 28.91%

3.9% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 

Employee Job Satisfaction

2013

Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job? Percent Positive 2013 - 64.31%

 2014

Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job? Percent Positive 2014 - 59.15%

5.16% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 

Employee Satisfaction With Organization

2013

Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization? Percent Positive 2013 - 47.30%

 2014

Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization? Percent Positive 2014 - 42.23%

5.07% Decline Between 2013 and 2014

 
 
 

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