Learning on the Web's front lines

FCW's DotGov Thursday column guides federal Web managers in creating a learning environment and dealing with mistakes

An armored tank can bounce—all 50-plus tons of it. I know because I have done it. A steep enough hill with a few large boulders and even an M60A1 armored tank can become airborne.

I can still distinctly remember the big thud when we (fortunately) bounced onto a level ledge about halfway down the embankment. My company commander peered over the edge to look at what his new second lieutenant had done on his first day in the field. I can still distinctly remember the look on his face as he said, " I see you have a problem." I was very grateful for the smile, even with the sarcasm. Yes, I did look ridiculous sitting halfway down a cliff in a tank. There was some humor here.

Despite the engineering problem of getting the tank back up the hill, we both understood that despite best efforts and intentions, people make mistakes. You have to be out there practicing your trade to mature in your professional abilities. Later that year, my armored tank team was second-highest in the gunnery exercises.

In any endeavor, we have all leaped over the edge to try something new. We should give some thought ahead of time how to react when people make mistakes—because even with the best intentions, mistakes will happen.

Surveys of corporate environments have found that employees' day-to-day feelings about their job are most affected by their immediate supervisor. The good news is, if you are a supervisor, you have the opportunity to create a positive environment for your team. But it's a heavy burden because if your people are unhappy, the first place to start looking for a reason is with you.

That day I bounced the tank down the cliff, I truly felt part of a team. The stern smile from my commander meant he knew I would do better. A lecture and an angry tone would have raised defensive emotions. No one was hurt. No property was damaged. He had the self-control and empathy to measure his response. He was a leader.

Webmasters are on the front lines and must gain their experiences from first-hand interactions with the public. In the world of providing federal services, Webmasters are clearly in the line of fire.

The challenge of creating a true learning environment (and showing real leadership) is to think through how you will react when mistakes happen. And they WILL happen, despite everyone's best efforts and intentions.

I suggest empathy first and an understanding tone. A partial smile, even if it requires a strong effort, will convey that your first concern is to build a team and work with the person who has made a mistake. You've no doubt had your own share of mistakes and situations that you wish were handled differently. Empathy should come easily if you think back on some of your own difficult moments. (Of course, different principles come into play with acts of intentional malice, aberrant conduct and criminal behavior.)

I believe that the No. 1 principle in creating a learning environment is how a manager reacts when mistakes occur. Punitive reactions, including anger, will create an environment where no self-initiative, no creativity and no risks will take place. A focus on learning from successes and failures will instead lead to self-initiative, innovation and measured risk-taking. Your people will watch out for you if they know you view yourself and them as part of your personal team.

Whether or not you are a manager, a learning environment starts first with the assumption that whatever happens to you, good or bad, is your personal responsibility—not someone else's. With this attitude, you will find that you can greatly influence your immediate environment to create positive outcomes.

The reality of life is that bad things happen to good people, but we must guard against blaming others. If you feel that there is an absence of good leadership, then you must rise to the occasion and be your own best leader.

The Web is a difficult environment in which to work. Security, privacy, Section 508, socio-economic contracting issues, changes in intellectual property law, conflict-of-interest laws, and many other requirements provide difficult challenges for Web teams in providing services to the public. At the same time, you likely have been drawn up the corporate ladder in grade and responsibility because of your agency's need to provide services over the Web. You are being paid more to deal with the difficult issues.

Whether you're a manager of a Web project or you're an individual Webmaster, focus on creating your own learning environment. Look at problems as opportunities to grow and develop. Enhanced organizational performance will follow as well as the rewards for improved performance.

It took a lot of effort to master tank gunnery in a year, but the motivation to be better came first from knowing I was part of my immediate supervisor's team. Creating a learning environment will help create an environment that will allow your organization to effectively launch Web pages to arrive on target.

Kellett is founder of the federal Web Business Council, co-chairman of the federal WebMasters Forum and director of GSA's Emerging IT Policies Division.