In January, the US Secret Service announced the demotion of four senior officials. The change in management comes after a series of well-publicized White House security lapses and a resulting report that found the agency “starved for leadership” and pointed out the need for leaders to “help strengthen a culture of accountability.”
A string of recent incidents at various agencies demonstrates how a corrosive culture and inattentive leadership can have life and death consequences:
- In August, Transportation Board of Canada (TBOC) officials pointed to a “lax culture of safety” as a primary contributing factor in the crash of 72 tanker cars filled with crude oil. The ensuing explosion and massive fire killed 47 people, destroyed 50 buildings, and burned nearly 60 vehicles.
- In July, the Centers for Disease Control found that an “insufficient culture of safety” contributed to a lapse in which 81 employees were exposed to the anthrax virus.
- In June, an internal report from General Motors blamed cultural failings as a cause of the faulty ignition switches and subsequent recall delays that resulted in at least 13 deaths.
- In May, a culture of cover-ups at the Department of Veterans Affairs was cited as contributing to health care delays for veterans, with top White House officials calling for the agency to be “restructured and reformed.”
While these examples are all varied and different, there is one common denominator: organizational culture is never neutral; it will shape by design or default and in some instances, can be a matter of life and death.
Leadership and culture are inextricably linked. The number one way that culture is shaped is by what leaders model. In the absence of leaders who are being intentional – consciously considering the environment they want to create and taking deliberate action to bring it to life – a culture will form on its own that may or may not serve the organization’s needs.
To change the prevailing culture at the Secret Service the new leaders need to focus their efforts in four key areas:
Communication: To the extent possible, a change in culture depends on clear, consistent messages. The agency must now consider, with the changes that have been recommended, what two or three key messages they want to permeate throughout the organization. They should not just communicate messages top-down, but create forums for two-way communication so agency leaders can listen as much as they talk, and give voice to the knowledge and experience of people at all levels in the organization. People will nourish what they help create.
Leadership: Going forward, people will be watching to see who fills the vacancies left by these demotions, and what that says about what is being valued. While these new leaders may help set the tone for the organization, all leaders in the agency must be keenly aware of the behavior they’re modeling. Employees watch to see whether leaders’ actions match their words. If they detect inconsistencies or insincerity, trust and engagement are undermined, and change will have little hope of taking root.
Education: The US Secret Service Protective Mission Panel (USSSPMP) has suggested sweeping changes in the amount of training for Secret Service personnel, noting that the training regimen has fallen “far below acceptable levels.” An increased investment in development would be a positive sign, to be sure, but to be truly effective, the design of development opportunities must take into account how adults learn best and allow ample opportunities to underscore the agency’s values and demonstrate desired behaviors.
Reinforcement: For any changes in the culture of the Secret Service to be successful, they must be sustained over the long term. While the USSSPMP may refer to this as a “culture of accountability,” I encourage leaders to think of it as a culture of reinforcement. Whereas “accountability” connotes looking for where to place blame, “reinforcement” focuses on encouraging and rewarding those behaviors that strengthen the agency’s mission. While formal recognition programs can play a part, reinforcing those behaviors informally has an equal, if not more profound, impact.
To be sure, the action by the Secret Service is a good first step toward righting the ship: a change in leadership is a powerful indicator of change in an organization. But it is only a first step. Real progress will depend on what the agency does next. The world will be watching to see who replaces those who’ve been asked to step down. And the organization will be watching to see whether the new leaders’ rhetoric on change and accountability is merely lip service, or if it runs deeper.