Public Service Tip No. 8: Scavengers Get Fatter than Predators


Among carnivores there are two primary means of finding food: killing your own and eating something that someone else has killed. The conventional wisdom is that it is better, and more respectable, to be a predator than it is to be a scavenger. The truth of the matter is that being a predator is dangerous. The animals that you're killing frequently fight back. What's more, being in control of your own destiny, so to speak, isn't necessarily the best strategy for getting fat. Scavengers frequently fare better than predators.

This fact should not go unnoticed by those entering public service. The inclination for political appointees, who see their tenure as temporary, is to dive right in with both feet, set goals, and start driving to completion. To make matters worse, they frequently work for people who are anxious to get results and so the pressure to "make things happen" can become intense. Political appointees frequently come from the private sector where this type of behavior is the norm and you're expected to make your own opportunities by actively hunting them down and killing them.

Under pressure to get results in a short time frame, the temptation is to use positional authority, rather than moral authority, to get the results that you seek. Positional authority is that authority you get from your title and the location of your office (reporting to the Governor, for example). Moral authority is that authority that comes from establishing relationships and convincing people, on the merits, that your ideas are right.

In order to exercise moral authority, you must carefully use the one real power that positional authority gives you, the power to convene, to carefully cultivate relationships with key players (who may or may not occupy a lofty position in the org chart) and listen to their ideas, problems and concerns. This will allow you to see the opportunities in your organization and capitalize on them.

Here's the problem: this strategy requires you to exercise incredible patience and act on opportunities that present themselves, rather than the opportunities you create. Scavenging for success in this way is antithetical to the way most private sector executives are used to operating. But, it can cause considerable pain for all involved when this principal isn't understood.

This was a significant factor in experience as CIO in Utah. While we accomplished much and certainly tackled some important opportunities, my "predatory behavior" ultimately cost me the ability to act. I understood that I was in a significantly different position with respect to the source of my authority than I'd had in my previous jobs where I acted from significant moral as well as positional authority, but didn't understand how that would affect the dynamics of how I operated from the Governor's office. In my resignation letter, I said that I'd become a distraction and that was certainly true. I'd made enough people angry that the conversation was more about me than what we could accomplish. I acted through positional authority in an effort to short circuit the process and ultimately it didn't work. An expensive lesson learned.

As readers of the blog will know, I think there are some significant opportunities available to Utah and other governments, both in the way that they manage their IT as well as in how they service their citizens. CIO's in Utah and elsewhere will accomplish much if they can be patient, build their moral authority, and strike when opportunities present themselves. Not an easy thing to do, but its really the only road to sustained success.