Driving change in government is notoriously hard — but not impossible. GovernmentCIO Media sat down with those who made things happen to hear their stories on how they successfully drove change and transformation in a bureaucracy. One important takeaway: You don’t have to be in the C suite to make change happen; in fact, sometimes a senior position will be more of a straight jacket, stifling movement in right direction.
When Pete Tseronis was appointed the Energy Department’s first-ever chief technology officer, little did he know his job would be more about the people behind the technology rather than the technology itself.
“It was a lot of door knocking, a lot of credibility establishment, a lot of plane trips to the [National] Labs, blending curiosity with the intent of being viewed as an authentic leader, not just someone who was collecting a paycheck as a federal bureaucrat inside the Beltway,” Tseronis recalls.
As CTO, Tseronis engaged with the diverse Energy Department ecosystem, forging relationships with researchers, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs. The biggest cultural challenge for Tseronis, in his role as technologist, was to earn the respect of an academic community that claims over 100 Nobel Prize winners.
“To go to a Lab and talk to a physicist and a chemist . . . to have a conversation and earn that trust and respect doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “I had to bring something to the table, which was helping that individual and their work become recognized.”
That led to Tseronis spending the final five years of his federal career shining a light on myriad achievements involving the Labs’ technology-enabled missions.
“I think a lot of people talk the talk, but walking the walk is a whole different thing.”
“It took time and effort to develop a tech road map, starting with nothing and building eventually a pretty diverse portfolio,” he says. “It comes back to cultivating those relationships. Prospecting and cultivating take time and you have to have the moxie and respect, and, I think, the drive to do that when you’re a federal employee, not just [because of your] title.”
True leaders, Tseronis says, learn to galvanize people into action, while maintaining respect and curiosity about others’ views. The key is to make change happen through people, he says.
“I looked in the mirror every day, Camille, and said, ‘What am I going to do today to make something different?’ Am I going to go to work, collect a paycheck and be happy with what I’ve achieved? Or am I really going to accumulate more knowledge not only about the technology marketplace but figure out how I’m going to share that with others? How am I going to enable and make change happen?” Tseronis says.
In 2015, after 25 years in government, Tseronis left to pursue a second career in the private sector. His company, Dots and Bridges, provides strategic planning to organizations. His decades as an evangelist and “connector” in the public and private sectors have helped him achieve early success as an entrepreneur.
“My time as the CTO for two cabinet-level agencies afforded me the chance to shape my brand of in-house consulting, technology vetting, and strategic forecasting,” Tseronis says. “Developing relationships creating alliances and learning something new each and every day was the fuel that drove me to start my next professional chapter, this time as a CEO.”
At Dots and Bridges, he created a platform to enable storytelling as an influential communication mechanism for differentiating company value proposition.
“And while it takes a good bit of energy — no pun intended — to actively listen — and hear — it is my passion,” Tseronis says. “Maybe it’s the extrovert in me. I enjoy it. I embrace it.”
“Lots of people in this town talk strategy and communication, especially when the lights are shining on them,” he adds. “That’s not being a visionary; that’s talking the talk, not walking the walk.”
At the end of the day, regardless of your professional role, we are human beings, each with a talent, gift and interest, “and recognizing that in others is rather enriching,” Tseronis says.
“It’s like that phrase, it’s not what you know, but who you know — well, that’s true to a point because just because you know somebody doesn’t mean you know somebody,” he says. “If we in government and business did a better job of really getting to know someone . . . people are going to trust you and think you’re authentic.”