Advice to New Employees – Guest Post by Jim Furnish

I asked Jim to give us his thoughts as an experienced Forest Service line officer on advice for new employees from non-FS backgrounds. It gave me a great deal to think about (the opaque, complex and dynamic levels of perceived legitimacy within the Forest Service) and I hope it generates discussion and some more helpful advice to these individuals, as well as discussions on hospitality to those new folks from current employees.

I. What’s Happening?
With regard to the growing phenomenon of FS hiring leaders with little or no FS experience (DoD e.g.,), or more specifically, natural resource experience… Why? A couple thoughts:
1) significant attrition with large exodus of retirees has opened many senior positions, 2) FS is still viewed as an attractive agency with a great mission, 3) FS may be waking to the idea that “outsiders” might actually be good (best?) hires, 4) veteran’s preference, of course.

Prominent examples would be Chief Vickie Christiansen, with a background as AZ and WA State Forester, and Jim Hubbard, former CO State Forester, who joined FS as S&PF Deputy Chief, and is now USDA Undersecretary.

II. Experience

Sour grapes? These are mine… While serving as Deputy Chief for National Forests I had the privilege to work with Chris Wood, Chief Dombeck’s policy advisor (now Pres/CEO of Trout Unlimited) and Hilda Diaz-Soltero, then Associate Chief; both substantial people. Chris and Hilda brought a raw energy and passion unmatched by most career leaders, along with some notions that seriously challenged agency dogma (good for them). Chris and Hilda both got the cold shoulder. Rather than welcoming each with open arms and doing everything to help them succeed, I observed “antibody” behaviors that sought to wall them off and minimize their impact — some overt, most subtle. I felt embarrassed at times. I hope the FS is doing better at creating an exemplary workplace for all (in light of persistent sexual harassment and misconduct), but ESPECIALLY for newcomers. Would anybody feel good about arriving on a new job eager to do their best, only to be shunned or marginalized? That would be deplorable. Yet, I experienced this even as a career professional.

III. Advice to Newcomers

Here’s my sober counsel to newcomers, especially those selected for leadership positions:

* Rejoice! You got the job you applied for, which could well be the best job you’ve ever had. The land you are responsible for bristles with opportunity, challenge, and beauty. Most people you serve, in your office and nearby communities, love this land as much as you and really want you to succeed. Ask for their help and listen to their values.

* Create your own focus group. Solicit suggestions for 12 knowledgeable, reasonable citizens and invite them to a monthly ad hoc get together. Meet for a year and ask their help in clarifying issues and defining success.

*Quickly get acquainted with your land base and resource issues. Invite key agency staff and citizens out for a one-on-one day in the woods. Listen. Ask questions. Learn!!

*The agency likely has notable adversaries. Go to them. Listen. Build bridges where possible.

*You will encounter feelings of loneliness and being “other”. Don’t ignore this, it’s real. But don’t be overwhelmed. Cultivate relationships with folks with whom you can bare your soul. A good source are peers, other leaders you trust to give you good honest counsel.

I’m hoping other readers will have good suggestions or comments. I’d like to see the FS give each new employee. especially leaders, a “1-pager” of distilled wisdom in their starter kit.

15 thoughts on “Advice to New Employees – Guest Post by Jim Furnish”

  1. Excellent advice and insight. Back when the FS was starting to talk about “Human Dimensions”, I recall a District Ranger who said that you needed to learn where the locals hang out so you could connect with local people there. In that instance, it was the local dump/transfer site – you could go there and learn what folks were really concerned about. In one small town that I lived in, it was a local coffee shop. And I also remember the advice of a former Forest Supervisor who said you need to “listen to the whispers” (vs. the shouting).

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  2. Some thoughts…
    1. What is natural resource experience, or more likely what do people mean by natural resource experience? Schooling, experience doing projects on the land, doing relevant science or policy? Or any of the above? I used to wonder about how many of us in planning from our diverse disciplinary backgrounds understood each other and projects in some kind of understanding (imagine a fish bio and a hydrologist talking about a project) but some of our legal folks (who knew so much about what we did and about litigated projects) still didn’t have the same resonance. Is it the way we were trained? Is it early work experiences?
    2. If you’re going to incorporate new people maybe the top of the food chain is not a place to start. Thought experiment.. would you want to go to a hospital run by a successful hospital administrator or by a terrific manager with great ideas who last worked at Google?
    On the other hand, I remember the previous Associate Chief, Dave Unger, hadn’t grown up in the FS either, and I didn’t see much pushback against him (caveat: my experience was working with him on RPA and at Chief and Staff Meetings so I might have missed a lot- also Chief Thomas had so much personality it would be hard for anyone to have paid too much attention to Dave.) So I don’t think it wasn’t all about “being from outside.”
    There was a quasi-political reason which added to any acceptance of Chris and Hilda. Jim Lyons and JWT had grown apart, and the new Chief was selected from outside the FS. Dombeck picked some folks from outside, possibly sending the message “you guys aren’t good/trustworthy enough.” Which could easily have snowballed into cascading mistrust. Some executive coaching for everyone involved might have helped. At the same time, perceptions (not just in the agency) was that there were political elements to it (if others want to get an idea of the controversies swirling around at that time, check out this piece by O’Toole https://www.ti.org/SA17.html). I experienced the then Undersecretary expressing unfavorable views of current FS employees to an outside group. I’m sure that feeling exhibited itself in more direct ways.. which would put any Chief into an awkward spot.

    III. For most folks, getting started as a deputy ranger (if they still have those), a deputy forest supervisor, a deputy regional forester, or even, like the new Chief, an associate deputy in DC can be good bridge positions under the wings of experienced and willing bosses, IMHO.

    Region 2 used to have a pamphlet for new employees to the Region – I think called Riding for the Brand by Rick Cables, the then-RF. I can’t find that either among my papers but I thought it had some useful advice. Does anyone have a copy?

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    • III. I agree that bridge positions can be very beneficial. And I’ve spoken with several who testify to this.

      And for the last time (too optimistic?) Mike Dombeck grew up in the FS in fisheries (R5 and WO) and was hugely successful before assignment with BLM, where he ultimately became Acting Director, before coming BACK TO THE AGENCY HE LOVED as a career SES to become Chief. He expressed concerns to me that many FS leaders were ingrown and lacked big spectrum vision, this his eagerness to hire “outsiders”. My personal conversations with Lyons confirmed that he knew he made some pivotal mistakes early in his tenure, but also that many FS leaders were 4square against Clinton environmental initiatives. I’m saying “Who distrusted who?”

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      • Look, I’m not one of those with a finely tuned sense of who is OK and who is not in old-school FS culture. As a low-level drone in the WO for many years I noted a wide variety of creative “big spectrum” thinkers (of course, this like leadership skills, may be in the eye of the beholder). Employees are extremely creative if they are asked, listened to, and taken seriously, in my experience. Even when they have every right to be jaded about “yet another initiative.”
        As to trust, I’m not sure that that is a goal between politicals and agencies. Mutual understanding and respect might be as good as it gets. I was saying that a Chief picking outsiders for important positions might be interpreted as he couldn’t trust people in the organization. I’m not saying that it’s true, I’m just saying that it could be perceived that way. The problem with being Chief is that you have to be respected by both the politicals and your own employees and find middle ground where each get enough of what they want. In that way it’s weirdly like the toughest middle management job ever.

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  3. Good advice from Jim Furnish, and I couldn’t agree more that it is critical to give incoming personnel a primer on the lay of the land (regardless of whether the individual is coming from DoD, VA, or USFS). To that end, I would be remiss to not remind this group and others of the availability of the NFMA Planning Rule FACA Committee’s final recommendations regarding agency transitions and turnover.
    The final formal recommendations are available here:

    https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/planningrule/committee/?cid=fseprd545202 (scroll down to “Recommendations on the Transition Process for Forest Service Leadership and Forest Planning Team Members”).

    The experience of the FACA Committee, supported by numerous peer-reviewed academic articles on the same topic, is that agency turnover is perhaps the biggest barrier to the Forest Service’s ability to consistently achieve its mission: you can’t care for the land and serve people ifyour employees are constantly turning over such that they don’t know what the needs of the land are or who the people they serve are.

    The FACA Committee transmitted these formal recommendations in 2015, and the “handover memo” template mentioned in our recommendations has been around for much longer. Still, the agency has yet to *require* any sort of process for outgoing key personnel to provide some sort of guidance for incoming staff (although some may do it of their own volition), even though leadership recognizes that this is a huge problem. (Maybe because relationships are inconsistent with the only two performance measures the agency has right now, acres treated and board feet?)

    Clearly I’m frustrated. I suppose my question is: at what point does repeated observations and advice get taken seriously and changes made? Or, should the Forest Service just stop talking as if partnerships mattered??

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    • Susan, I have heard similar frustrations expressed prior to the FACA committee (at meetings of collaborative groups) and post the FACA committee (during the recent EADM public involvement process).

      Given that, I wonder whether your recommendations hit the right place. After all, NFMA Planning is only one thing that partners work on. And maybe the problem is essentially structural.. partnership requirements don’t have a chain of authority to the District level (that goes with $) like other work does.

      Finally, those transition recommendations seem pretty common-sensical, but let’s talk more broadly about “improving transition effectiveness.” It’s something that seems obvious so most people do it, but some people don’t- how to change that behavior.

      So I would ask (1) “what are we missing? Is there something difficult about this that we don’t see?”
      (2) Who would decide on/formalize this as a policy (more broadly than NFMA planning)? The Partnerships Office or ????
      (3) How does that become incorporated into day- to- day business and how are people held accountable?

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    • Hello again SJB! Here’s one for ya… I remember mentioning to a forest supervisor that maybe we should talk to his predecessor for context, background, suggestions on a particular matter. Reply: “I would never do that.”
      I also agree that experience and longevity can solidify performance and relationships… HOWEVER, poor performers (leaders especially) shouldn’t be given too long leash.

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  4. Perhaps just an oversight, but I must comment on paragraph III. It notes that FS employees serve others in the FS office and in local communities. I note that the vast majority of those whom FS serves are neither of these. Our Forests are owned by all 300 million plus of us. The National Forests were established to provide values and benefits for us all. Let’s face it, local “collaboratives” have often been dominated by local, private, economic interests. I have seen “outsiders” being refused access to participate. This situation must be recognized, not supported by careless wording. JAB

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  5. JAB: Agree wholeheartedly! Every USFS employee should consider all 300 million all the time! I remember one boss in WY saying “When the Copenhagen ring shows up on the back pocket of the Wrangler’s it’s time to go.”

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  6. “With regard to the growing phenomenon of FS hiring leaders with little or no FS experience (DoD e.g.,), or more specifically, natural resource experience… ” Yes – we have noticed that. I have heard that FS employees needn’t bother to apply for certain positions, because there is high level direction to hire outside the agency, regardless of qualifications. For those of us who care about the agency and have worked hard to acquire knowledge and experience, this “trend” is extremely disheartening – the perception is that we are not valued, and that our experience is assumed to have resulted in a profound lack of flexibility and an inability to innovate.

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    • I wonder where this “high level direction” is coming from. This seems new since I retired. Diversity hires were important then, but not “fresh” outsiders for their own sake. Fresh being ones who have not already had one job in the FS. I’ll poke around with other retirees and see what they’ve heard.

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    • If true, deplorable. I think competition should be open. If FS employees are being discouraged from even applying, or worse, not even considered, that is a travesty.

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  7. I guess some high level USFS people are finally getting first-hand experience with how it feels to see positions ‘wired’, for someone else. It also seems like new upper-level hires can just ignore the lack of quality Temporary Employees, doing important jobs, within the Agency. My advice for timber Temps would be to look towards outsourced field work and contracting. Can Trump issue an Executive Order to eliminate OPM rules, regarding Temps? With wages going up on non-technical jobs elsewhere, how will the USFS get their field work done, with a bunch of GS-3’s (making less than minimum wage, in some States)?

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  8. Maybe they can turn some of the ologists into field people?
    I always wanted to be the Powers district ranger, but I don’t think I could of stood all the meetings, and besides, I am too old now.

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    • I’ve seen Ologists wielding paintguns before. They are usually light on following the prescription but, they seem to like the power in the paint. Like any technical job, it takes experience and repetition to get good at it.

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