Working and Managing in the Public Sector (or How I Ended Up in Billy Hamilton’s Office)

[This article is based on his presentation at the Mid-Winter Conference. See his presentation handout for additional information.]

Reissig 1About four or five years ago I woke up one morning, and as I contemplated the workday ahead, I asked myself, “How did I get here?” Yes, just like David Byrne of Talking Heads in the song “Once in a Lifetime.”

But seriously, I didn’t make the best grades in high school, for years I was very awkward socially, and I don’t consider myself to be a towering genius of intellect. So how was it on that morning, after having started as a frontline worker 25 years before, did I find myself Associate Deputy Comptroller, only one rung below Deputy Comptroller, the highest staff position at the Comptroller’s office?

Four or five years after that morning, I’m now Deputy Comptroller, improbably sitting in Billy Hamilton’s former office. I’m going to claim I may have solved that mystery. I’ll then throw in a huge disclaimer and conclude with my top 10 list of tips I’ve picked up over the years.

How Did I Get Here Anyway?

The Public Sector Career Pyramid explains, at least in part, how people advance in an organization. I emphasize public sector because that’s the experience I’ve had, but I suspect it could also apply to the private sector. [Click on graphic to enlarge.]

Reissig 2

Frontline Worker

Let’s say you’re just out of college and you’ve landed a job as an accountant. This is your first professional job. In my case it was as an economist/revenue estimator. What is the main key to success for a technical worker? Well obviously, your key to entry is your technical knowledge in the form of a degree in accounting and perhaps certification as a Certified Public Accountant. That gets you in the door, but what then?

Reissig 3Fortunately, we’re in luck because we can turn to management sage Woody Allen for some good advice. He famously stated, “80 percent of success is just showing up.” Of course, he said this for laugh value, but like most comedy, it’s funny at least in part because there’s truth to it.

In this case, how many of us have seen fellow employees go on the skids because they frequently show up to work late, take long lunches, leave early or just flat don’t show up at all? Does the term “mental health day” mean anything to you? Remember, the lowest performer in your group is doing better than you if you’re not there.

But it gets more complicated. Let’s say you’ve shown up physically to work, but your head’s just not in it. Perhaps you’re daydreaming while reading this article, or you’re here but constantly watching the clock see if it’s break time, lunch or time to go. If so, then I hate to break it to you, but you may as well be at home watching reality TV.

Say you’ve jumped that hurdle. You’re here and you’re engaged. Then it’s time to dig into what your assignment is. All that means is that whatever your task is, you have to develop a personal interest in knowing more about that single task than anyone else in your workplace. You have to be the “go-to guy” for that task. There’s nothing more embarrassing than to have someone who doesn’t do your job demonstrate he or she knows more about it than you do.

You should develop an intrinsic interest in your work, not just seeing it as a way to make money, but as something you actually take pride in and want to do better. This may take the form of reading professional journals, attending conferences or developing new skill sets on your own time that will help you do your job even better.

An exemplary frontline worker also responds to requests in a timely manner. A marginal worker’s philosophy is, “Don’t do your work too quickly because they’ll just give you something else to do.”

To sum up, exemplary frontline workers are present mentally and physically, dependable, responsive, engaged and enthusiastic. They produce their work in a timely manner without being sloppy or hasty.

Supervisory and Middle Management

So you’ve established yourself as a great frontline employee and you’ve gotten the attention of management. Now let’s say a supervisory position opens up and you apply. To your great delight, you get the position. A little more money and the chance to manage a group are your rewards. Congratulations. Now don’t let it go to your head.

Here’s some sobering news. For the first time in your career, your reputation and work product depend in part on someone else. You heard right, that total doofus who’s been sitting next to you for years droning on about Game of Thrones is now partly responsible for your reputation and success going forward. But be careful about calling that guy a doofus because I’ve seen managers fail or never advance again because nobody likes them due to their arrogance or vindictiveness. And let’s face it, Game of Thrones can be kind of profound at times.

Reissig 4Also, do you like meetings? I hope so, because you’re now going to be spending more time in them, perhaps even running them. To be good manager, you have to learn a whole new set of skills in addition to the technical skills that got you there. In short, you have to be able to play well with others and recognize the wisdom of existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre when he famously said, “Hell is other people.”

This becomes even more paramount when you advance beyond the supervisory level into management. In management, the meetings become more frequent, and your interaction with other people only increases.

You also have to get comfortable with:

  • Learning a little about a whole lot rather than a whole lot about a little. This is quite different from when you did technical work or supervised a small group whose members carried out a similar task.
  • Getting out of your comfort zone to learn about unfamiliar subjects. That will be a challenge because you have less time than you think.

Since it’s difficult to become a great technical expert at everything, you have to learn how to trust experts. I’ve seen people with overstuffed inboxes who don’t have the time to review everything in great detail, but don’t trust others in the organization enough to sign off on them without such a thorough review. The result is inertia and sluggish performance that potentially slows down the whole organization.

So what to do? You have to get the right people in the right job, and then trust them to get the job done.

As a bonus, once you transcend the supervisor level and get into management, you have to spend more time pondering such issues as how to do more with less, which sadly ceases to be a well-worn cliché when you actually have to implement a budget cut. You consider issues like how to deal with an aging workforce, along with recruitment and retention of talent. None of these issues may have concerned you much in the past, but now they are real things you will be called on to assist with.

Here are the characteristics of good managers:

  • They play well with others, and can motivate and get the most out of their employees, even the marginal ones.
  • They know at least the basic technical aspects of their areas.
  • They are a good judge of talent.
  • They deal effectively with big picture issues, such as budget cuts and staffing issues.

Before we move to the rarified air of upper management, I can’t stress enough that an effective manager is humble, but knows how to be firm when necessary. In my opinion, the single most important aspect of supervisory and middle management is interpersonal relations. If people don’t like or respect you or don’t want to be around you, they simply are not going to be positioned to put their best foot forward on your, and more importantly, the agency’s behalf. As I once heard, people don’t leave organizations; people leave people.

Upper Management

So now you’ve clawed your way through middle management and the opportunity arises to be in upper management at your agency. Well what now? What does that even mean? What new skillsets do you need? I know, it seems like there are nothing but questions at this level.

Here goes, and I don’t even have a quote from a famous person to lean on here. Upper management is more about the ineffable skills of applied knowledge or wisdom that allow you to guide the organization, recognize opportunities and see trouble before it happens.

You are now responsible for areas you have no hope of ever becoming a technical expert in (at least I don’t). Trust and a strong support team are more important than ever. You need to be both a good judge of talent and have the ability to work with and motivate managers who were picked by someone else who perhaps wasn’t a very good judge of talent.

Remember, at a state agency you can’t make decisions about changing your core mission or engage in mergers and acquisitions (at least not without the okay of the Legislature). So your skills are generally limited to knowing how to:

  • Get the agency’s work done in the most efficient manner possible.
  • Stay off the front page of the paper.
  • Set the standard for performance other agencies will want to emulate.

Nothing to it, right?

Reissig 5Your hallmarks now as an upper level manager are big picture thinking, delegation, intangibles and applied wisdom. Some of these are nearly impossible to teach and only come with experience, but experience alone will not get you there. If this portion of the article seems somehow unsatisfactory, well it’s meant to be because once you get to this level, the necessary skill can’t be transmitted by mere words. You just know it when you see it. Pretty heavy, huh? Wow, I suddenly feel like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid.

Now for the Buzzkill

Overarching all this is an element of luck that’s undeniable. You may do everything perfectly and still not make it very far up the agency’s org chart.

As an example of the need for a healthy dose of good luck in the mix, take my story. Six months after I was hired in November 1985 in the Comptroller’s Revenue Estimating Division, there was a huge shake-up in the broader area where I worked. It all started when my great mentor Billy Hamilton left the agency. Though he would return to the agency in 1991 to become the legendary Deputy Comptroller, his departure at the time sparked pure chaos and set off a titanic power struggle that culminated in either the firing or resignation of nearly two-thirds of the Revenue Estimating Division.

As a result, I found myself suddenly one of the senior members of the division at age 25 and having to personally brief Bob Bullock from time to time. To say I was terrified and none too happy with this result back then would be a gross understatement. But from the perspective of 30 years on, I realize this whole difficult episode laid the groundwork for my future success that may very well have never happened had things remained more tranquil.

I can point to several other quirky things that happened along the way that I won’t get into. But if they hadn’t occurred, I almost certainly wouldn’t be Deputy Comptroller today. Suffice it to say, I could have had all the insight I’ve described above and not be in the position I’m in today without being in the right place at the right time.

But hey, don’t despair. In my experience, you are still much better off following these insights than you would be without them. When it comes to luck, you are a lot more lucky if you do the right things and position yourself to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

10 Helpful Hints for All of Us

Now for some bonus material. Here are 10 helpful tips (spoiler alert: it’s actually 11) that can help all of us as we struggle through each day.

  1. People will be unhappy with some of your decisions and might even say negative things about you. Some might even think you’re a doofus. Stay calm and allow for the fact they might be right from time to time. Remember what I said about humility before; well, here’s a chance to apply it. If you spend your life worrying people are saying something bad about you, then rest assured they are. You can’t let it affect your performance, except to consider some possible truths in it.
  2. It’s not about your hurt feelings. See tip number 1. About a dozen negative things may happen during the course of an average day. I’m not trying to sound harsh here, but if you hope to manage people someday, you have to find a constructive way to deal with all the things that happen in a typical day without taking it personally. Remember what I said about briefing Bob Bullock. Oh boy, did I learn this one early, before I ever managed anyone. Bullock once asked the revenue estimators to visit with him one by one so he could determine whether we had sense enough to pour water out of a boot with the instructions printed on the heel.
  3. Don’t bring your personal stuff to work, and don’t take your work home. Multitasking is the enemy of quality. Good luck with this one in our short attention span society, but “Try you must,” as Yoda would say. I don’t want to get into anyone’s personal business, but to the extent you can draw a bright line between your personal issues and work issues, the better off we all are.
  4. Don’t avoid people you don’t like. We all have a list in our heads (or written on the palm of our hand). In management, you simply don’t have the luxury of avoiding people you’re not that wild about. In fact, you need to make a special effort to give them extra attention — not because you’re trying to make yourself a better person, but simply because they are the ones who need your attention the most for the good of the agency.
  5. If at all possible, communicate by actually talking to people, either face to face or by phone rather than emailing or texting. Why? Because to do otherwise is just plain stupid J. Notice how the emoticon offset my use of the inflammatory word “stupid.” I wouldn’t have noticed either. Also, in the age of rampant open record requests, emoting in emails is not smart at all and can get you in pretty hot water. Your snarky (yet possibly amusing) comments could end up on the front page of the paper or be something you have to explain in a deposition.
  6. Encourage productive confrontation at meetings. I know you’re thinking there’s no greater fun than trash-talking behind someone’s back. Even conceding that, you don’t want to let yourself get away with this. You need to raise the issue diplomatically to the person’s face. Tip number 6 is really a difficult one because your success depends at least in part on how well-adjusted the person you are having the confrontation with is. Nonetheless, avoiding productive confrontation can be a real drain on productivity that causes unnecessary confusion. Trust me, avoidance will only make things worse later.
  7. Keep a clean inbox on your desk and don’t let email accumulate. Respond to requests quickly and respectfully, regardless of who’s asking. “Kiss Up, Kick Down” may seem like a good strategy for advancement, until someone you kicked leapfrogs you on the org chart. And for crying out loud, return your phone calls. One of the best compliments ever paid to me was from someone who said I appear to be the same person whether I’m talking to the Comptroller or a frontline worker. I’m genuinely humbled by that comment and hope it’s true. At the end of the day, we’re all generally trying to get to the same place.
  8. Concentrate on listening. Like sitting meditation, this is easier said than done. Listening may be the most underrated attribute out there, and boy, can it be difficult to do. It’s one thing to be caught daydreaming while your Aunt Matilda is talking to you. For someone who reports to you to think you are not listening is nearly unforgivable and can be very difficult to recover from. The same rule applies to all of us at every level of the organization.
  9. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t pretend to know something you don’t. I’m exempt from this one because I really am the smartest guy around. Okay, I’m not really, but anyone who’s given testimony to the Legislature knows there’s no shame in saying, “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you.” Giving an incorrect answer in that context can be difficult and embarrassing to fix, especially (and here it is again) if it ends up in the paper.
  10. Don’t brag about how much work you do. People are just pretending to be impressed, especially those who report to you. Of course, someone could also point out you shouldn’t write lengthy articles about how you rose up through an organization. Point well taken.
  11. Take a deep breath, and remember whatever it is, this too shall pass. I lied. It’s actually 11 things. If that just sounds trite and silly, then try this: Goof off a little each day. Hey, I said “a little;” now get back to work.

About the Author

Deputy Comptroller Mike Reissig

Deputy Comptroller Mike Reissig is also the current president of the Federation of Tax Administrators’ Board of Trustees.

Reissig has also held the following positions at the Comptroller’s office: associate deputy comptroller for tax and fiscal policy, director of Tax Administration, director of Fiscal Management and chief revenue estimator. During the 1991 and 1993 sessions, he also worked at the Texas Legislature out of the House Ways and Means Committee.

His academic background includes a bachelor’s degree with honors from Texas Lutheran University, a master’s degree in business administration from Southwest Texas State University and a degree in accounting.

Deputy Comptroller Mike Reissig can be contacted at: