Martha Johnson is passionate about innovation, creative and effective management and organizational culture change, and that radiates from her newly released book, On My Watch, Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience. Martha Johnson is also a great leader. I should know. I worked for her twice: once in the Clinton Administration and later as a member of the Obama transition team. She has vision, strategic thinking skills, and on a daily basis uses her smarts, creativity and humor to motivate people.
You may also recognize her name; in April 2012, Johnson resigned in a very public way from her Senate-confirmed position as Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). The scandal emerged over a GSA training conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, and was not only front page news in the Washington Post and the New York Times, but provided fuel for many late night talk show comics, hosts and others.
But her new book, On My Watch, isn't a Washington tell-all. Instead, Johnson does three things. First, she talks candidly about GSA's organizational challenges, what happened at GSA leading up to her resignation, and the personal aftermath of that incident. Second, her book gives a good sense of the challenges faced by leaders in government, which do differ somewhat from leaders in other organizations, and the inherent tensions between politically appointed leaders of government agencies and career civil servants. And, third, and to me most importantly, Johnson uses her extensive management experience -- all of it -- as a jumping off point for her setting out lessons learned and strategies about effective leadership, innovation and problem solving.
A lot of people write about leadership and what makes a good leader. There is a lot to say on the topic. But Johnson's book is important because it talks about leaders and leadership in the midst of crisis and it comes from someone who has been there. But it doesn't just do that, it also focuses on how leaders need to help foster new ways of thinking and encourage both creativity and new ways of defining the problems we tackle in the workplace.
This book provides a unique discussion of an effective leader's real job (keeping the big picture at the forefront; asking simple but pointed questions when making decisions; prioritizing good organizational design) but also outlines good practical advice (be accessible, be visible, don't talk all the time; listen to people).
I especially liked her discussion of the importance of finding a large goal that pulls an entire organization in one direction, so that everyone, no matter what their job, thinks about how what they do helps the organization. GSA is a good study in how that can work. It's an organization with disparate product lines and unique metrics (real estate, procurement, facilities management). In GSA's case, the mega-goal was that it would strive for a Zero Environmental Footprint throughout its business lines and daily activities. A bold and audacious goal, yes, but a unifying one that gave a sense of purpose across the agency, and which helped drive performance.
I also appreciated her thoughts on how hard it is to change organizational culture, and that organizations are populated with people, some who embrace change, some who don't, and all of whom possess weaknesses and imperfections. Her description of the types of techniques that worked to jump start that creativity are fascinating, and give an inside glimpse of how change can happen in any type of organization.
In short, this a good book for anyone who is interested in how leaders at every level of an organization can think about innovation, transparency, and organizational design. It comes from someone who has literally been there, in the most exhilarating and most difficult of organizational and personal times, and is willing to share her story.