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In this post, I share what I learned about the value of active collaboration—and the power of a sincere apology—while working as a state government leader.

#6: Build collaboration with peers

You accomplish goals by working with others with whom you’ve built relationships based on mutual respect, trust and shared vision. My career was in the back office, or internal operations, of government. Although the back office is critical to government, improvements or efficiencies in this area only rarely made it to the state leadership agenda. With virtually no top-down directives, improvement initiatives were essentially “entrepreneurial”; ideas would emerge from within back-office organizations and then be surfaced upward as needed. While back-office initiatives may not have started at the top, they invariably required us to work across offices—from budget and treasury to procurement, human resources, facilities and more.

I constantly worked to build and maintain relationships across these organizations. I began by identifying subgroups or key contacts within these organizations and then assigned to myself or one of my direct reports the responsibility for managing the ongoing relationship. Where possible, I would schedule regular “open agenda” meetings to manage the relationship. In addition to fostering trust, these meetings provided a venue to raise any issues between the organizations. Addressing such issues proactively helped ensure they didn’t fester into larger problems or do lasting damage to the relationship. For other subgroups where regular meetings weren’t practical, I identified opportunities to make calls and scheduled issue-specific briefings on topics of interest.

However you do it, identify and act on opportunities to foster relationships. Where opportunities do not exist, create them. Doing so can be critical to moving beyond tunnel vision on the function you’re leading into a broader view of the end-to-end business processes that you support. After all, inefficiencies usually arise in the handoffs and disparate systems that agencies use to manage a process. By working together as peers, we stayed focused on how to best manage the business process and, ultimately, support the customer-facing organizations that served our citizens every day.

#7: Never underestimate the value of an apology

My mother always told me, “When you’re wrong, apologize.” Mom was right. Even so, when triaging difficult issues, I’ve often found that apologies are the last approach on the agenda—despite frequently being the most effective. An apology immediately de-escalates an issue and moves the focus of conversation from problem to solution.

I can think of multiple cases when I used this approach to great success even over the objections of my staff. In one instance, the Commonwealth (not my office directly) had made an error implementing a federal regulation going back 20 years. As a result, Massachusetts had underpaid the federal government tens of millions of dollars before interest and penalties. This error came to the attention of the Comptroller’s office when a subsidiary payroll system was brought into the central payroll system. As was our obligation after confirming the Commonwealth error, we informed the federal government.

As we flew to Washington to negotiate a settlement armed with outside counsel, we strategized about how we would approach the meeting in order to minimize back taxes, interest and penalties. The initial calculations suggested interest and penalties could far exceed the original obligation. I explained to counsel it was my intent to open the meeting by apologizing on behalf of the Commonwealth. I walked into the conference room, sat across from a half-dozen stern-faced federal officials and did just that. I told them it was the Commonwealth’s obligation to properly implement the regulations and we had failed. I was there to apologize on behalf of the Commonwealth. I watched as those officials relaxed and sat back in their chairs, tension draining from the room. We settled for three years of back taxes with no interest or penalty. It was the right thing to do. It saved the Commonwealth millions of dollars in penalties. And I remain convinced that opening our meeting with a sincere apology was critical to the outcome.

In my next post, find out what flowers, mushrooms and toadstools have to do with managing people when you’re a leader in state government. (Are you intrigued?)

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