NSA creating culture of leaders, managers

Monday - 4/11/2011, 12:02pm EDT

Chris Inglis, deputy director, National Security Agency

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

CAMBRIDGE, Md. - The National Security Agency has a workforce filled with smart people from mathematicians to computer scientists to engineers. But NSA, like many agencies, sometimes struggles to find leaders and managers among all that intellect.

Too often, NSA falls into the easy habit of promoting an employee who is technically among the best to a management role. This is a common occurrence throughout the government.

But Chris Inglis, NSA deputy director, said it's after the promotion that the agency differs from many others.

"What we have for our civilian employees is training because we haven't invested in our employees enough to make them good managers," said Inglis at the Federal Senior Management Conference opening keynote Sunday.

"Everyone has the capacity to be a good manager and a good leader, but whether they like it is a different story. We have to figure out what makes them happiest as employees."

Inglis, who has worked for NSA for 25 years and risen through the ranks to be the organization's top civilian leader, said technically adept workers also must have the aspiration and some of the requisite skills.

He added that every first-level manager gets a mentor to help them navigate their new role. NSA puts each new executive through training and ensures they have resources to help out in difficult situations.

Inglis said training at NSA comes from many different places.

"There are things that are unique to our business you can expect, perhaps crypto mathematics or particular deep expertise, we will do a lot of that in house," he said. "There are other skills, whether leadership or management or broad aspects of language training, that the private sector is very good at and we will leverage their skills as well."

Inglis said there also is a difference between management and leadership.

Managers, he said, take charge of solving a problem. A leader is someone who helps reframe what is possible and appropriate for the organization.

"When President Kennedy said the U.S. will go to the moon in the next decade, that was leadership," Inglis said.

No matter if a senior executive is a manager, a leader or both, Inglis said it's the people that make up the organization that really are most important.

And a good manager and a good leader must make their employees know they matter.

"People are the miracle ingredient in any organization," he said. "Over the last 60 years of NSA existence, we've been able to mass a diverse manpower that has been better than our adversaries. It's not about the technology or having a better box than our adversaries, but our people and their ability to harness their brainpower has been the difference."

Inglis said making sure employees know they play important roles in the agency is one of biggest challenges for managers.

"There is a sense of connection that employees must have," he said.

Inglis said managing at a place like NSA, where everyone is smart and thinks through the issues with great attention to detail, adds another dimension to being a good manager and leader.

"Many times you need to get people to explain why they came to a certain conclusion and what their objectives are," he said. "Many conversations lack those pieces because people end up talking past each other."

Inglis said leadership and management come into play every day at NSA, but the need for these skills are most obvious in the mission area of intelligence sharing.

Inglis said the intelligence community has made great strides since 2001, moving beyond "connecting the dots" to a more granular level of information sharing. He said this is true not just in the classified world but in every agency where they face more pressure to share data and collaborate on programs because of budget constraints, administration requirements, and the recognition that good management requires such efforts.

Inglis said there are four steps any organization needs to take to improve collaboration across agencies and within them:

  • Shared ground where everyone comes together around a common proposition,
  • Senior leadership values working together,
  • Professional relationships where people know people in a way that creates trust and connections,
  • Technology infrastructure and tools to make sharing easy and seamless.

"The intelligence community recognizes the depth of expertise is still important, each and every discipline makes a contribution," he said. "But it must make it in the combination of all those other disciplines. If the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts then we are not in the right place. I think we are making progress in that regard."

Inglis said the intelligence agencies are driving each other to do more to create a greater understanding of the data and it's happening at all levels and across the community.

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