Mature organizations are not necessarily old organizations, but they do share the characteristic of wisdom we often attribute to more experienced people.

Wisdom is generally recognized as good problem-solving and decision-making through an integration of experience, knowledge, and deep understanding. Mature organizations are energetic, vibrant, results focused, innovative, caring, and calm. Having “institutional wisdom,” organizations can operate consistently (across quality, values, performance, results), and easily adapt to change with little to no drama whether or not the leader is present.

They regularly achieve high marks on quality, results, service, employee satisfaction, and adaptation to new realities. They proactively and realistically see issues before they become problems, are solution oriented, transparent, collaborate well with others inside and outside the organization, and get things done efficiently and effectively.

I realize this may sound utopic, but maintaining institutional wisdom is one of the critical roles of the leadership team. Without it, you are forever playing catch up in reacting to the world around you. What a mature organization looks like and how to get there is the subject of this brief article. Making it happen requires strong leadership, a cultural shift for some, and legislative action to reform the budget process and the civil service in a way that both honors federal employees and allows for strong management to support organizational effectiveness.

Consider an agency I once worked with that had been warned by Congress that it might be abolished because, since its creation, it had not been able to demonstrate any results or impact. The newly confirmed political leader found an agency in disarray: unfocused, with mounting employee grievances, vastly outdated technology, little to no process or policy, and constituent complaints piled a mile high. The existing career leadership was a big part of the problem, feeding into the “9 to 5” mentality, hoping no one asks a question or demands results. He set out to fix it.

He established a set of goals for the first time, which he immediately gave to the White House and said “fire me if I don’t achieve them.” He instituted a results-based performance management system for leadership (and later employees), removed some leaders, fought for and received funding to modernize the agency, eliminated some functions and reengineered others, and established a constituent advisory group. He then began meeting with all employees and being personally involved in training and educating everyone specifically on the mission of the agency and its impact on America. He would not let people “rise to the level of mediocrity.”

The list of transformational initiatives is longer, but you get the idea. He paid attention to the organization, created a new systemic wisdom within the organization and produced measurable results for the first time in its history. He left the agency after the Administration with a strong foundation of performance and care. And it had sticking power after he left.

Why? Because he paid attention to the organization, demanded performance, provided the tools, and developed and prepared the employees around both a mission and a set of values. Now, incoming employees get educated by their peers and supervisors on “how we do things here.”

I was proud to be a part of that transformation. I was proud of the employees who saw their role as greater than themselves and made decisions, took initiative, and willingly expended genuine energy each day based on a set of great principles. I saw the courage it took to make this shift on the part of leaders and employees, and I applauded them.

Mature organizations don’t require a lot of older people, but they do require the right mix of skill and experience, and the capacity to stay consistent with the goals and values of an organization. Goals and values must permeate an organization, which makes retention of top, adaptable talent absolutely critical. Organizations should strive to retain the best talent and have the most flexible management tools with which to do so. This retained talent also serves as a management tool to develop incoming staff in the ways of the organization.

Some attrition (voluntary and involuntary) is appropriate and often necessary, and management needs the tools to be able to align their organization. Retirement or natural attrition can sometimes be detrimental as organizations cannot control the loss of talent and organizational wisdom as well as timing. Managers need the flexibility to realign people, based upon their skills, in the job they can do best, and also have the flexibility to reorganize and create the assets necessary to achieve.

Attrition provides managers with the ability to hire the right replacement, ensuring new people are well aligned with the tenets of the organization. In other words, attrition is a tool manager’s use to not just hire replacement personnel, but to continue to mold the character of the organization. While too much attrition causes a loss of institutional wisdom, it can be a useful balancing tool.

Having staff that care, and hold each other accountable, creates a culture committed to ensuring all employees understand the right way to do things. Establishing clear expectations and appropriate productivity, quality, and results targets is also critical. But so is a full alignment of an organizations tools, systems, policies, and standards.

A wise organization is almost self-managing and can transcend its leadership. But it takes an effective leader to create and maintain an effective organization. It is the leadership who creates a wise organization with people and systems that are aligned, care, and efficiently and effectively perform great things for the American people. We owe it to the people who pay us to perform and to this great country we call home. This requires wise judgment, decision-making and consistent performance on the part of all.

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