Leadership Corner

Reflections on 2019: Final all-employee call of the year

December 13th, 2019 at 2:44PM
Portrait of Chief Christiansen in uniform.
Chief Vicki Christiansen

In our final all-employee call of 2019, members of the executive leadership team spent time reflecting on a few stories that defined us this year, stories that epitomize the values based, purpose driven and relationship focused agency we are becoming. Our agency core values of service, interdependence, diversity, conservation and safety shone through the stories themselves and also in the reactions and questions from employees as you engaged with us during the conference call.

Values Based

Associate Chief Lenise Lago and I opened the call with some straight talk about last year’s furlough and the upcoming end of the current continuing resolution on Dec. 20. As you all know, the year began with a lapse in government funding. As an agency we did our very best to lead and manage through great uncertainty. Our shutdown plans were never intended to be used for such a long period of time. And while we didn’t get everything right, we worked hard to lead from our agency core values and to share information with each other and with our employees. This shutdown showed us how much we rely upon each other, and for many of us it cemented interdependence as an essential core value.

Due to the similarities in timing between now and last year, we know many of you are apprehensive about what might happen come Dec. 20. One thing I want to be sure that everyone knows: Federal employees are guaranteed, in perpetuity, to be repaid once a furlough ends. I firmly expect to see a new continuing resolution signed, and that we will all continue coming to work uninterrupted. In the end, whatever comes, we feel confident that we have the knowledge and resilience to pull through as we did in January.

Not long after returning from the furlough, we lost firefighter and helitack captain Daniel J. Laird, who died in the line of duty on March 27. Tragedies of this nature serve as a reminder of the honorable work and sacrifices made by people like Daniel. They daily commit themselves to supporting and protecting communities around the country. We can continue to honor him best by what we do and how we do it, investing in our core values. We can let him inspire us by dedicating ourselves to something greater than ourselves…to giving of ourselves in service to others.

Purpose Driven

After our work stoppage, we faced a shortened field season. National Forest System Deputy Chief Chris French reflected on the spring 2019 direction from USDA to centralize the approval of all grants and agreements. Suddenly, the more than 12,500 grants and agreements that were intended to be reviewed and used during the field season and beyond all ground to a halt.

Yet that stoppage allowed us to put a bright spotlight on both the value and the purpose of our partners and volunteers. We have a wide variety of partners, and we depend upon all their contributions. There were more than 3,000 partners involved in the agreements awaiting review, and their 4.8 million service hours were equivalent to 2,600 full-time employees. By obligating $760 million and leveraging contributions of $602 million, we netted an overall value of $1.36 billion.

Almost 63% of our 2019 accomplishments included some form of volunteerism. Our partners and volunteers are with us at the heart of the Forest Service mission. They get work done on the ground and are a huge part of our core purpose to support nature in sustaining life, our ultimate “Big Why.”

Relationship Focused

We can’t talk about partnerships and volunteerism without touching on the work of our Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers and their students. Business Operations Deputy Chief Claudette Fernandez reflected on the experience of going from a decision to transfer operations of the Forest Service Job Corps Centers to Department of Labor to a reinvestment in the program.

As we all know, Job Corps employees faced a long period of uncertainty early this summer. Students and employees were looking at the potential closure of the centers they attended. Communities faced the loss of a valuable asset: places that provided jobs and education while serving their communities. Managers were faced with keeping motivated and focused on the mission while dealing with the uncertainty of a potential loss of livelihood.

Yet this challenging situation gave us the opportunity to create a renewed relationship between USDA, Job Corps Centers and the Department of Labor. While governor of Georgia, the Secretary focused on ensuring that young people had high graduation and employment rates, and that is the purpose of Job Corps. As the Secretary engaged with us and with our Job Corps leadership, we identified this shared value around service to young people through education and job training.

We were able to come to an agreement about how to better focus the training students receive so that they have a pipeline to employment within the Forest Service upon graduation. The Secretary fully supported this new path. Next week, we will meet with him to provide an update on progress made and future efforts.

Looking ahead

This is the year the Forest Service brought life to shared stewardship through our efforts to sign 12 agreements with states. This work has created a new ethos for how we will accomplish work into the future.

Next year, we will continue to build on these successes to improve conditions on America’s national forests and grasslands to ensure they are healthier, more resilient and more productive.

We will keep building on the partnerships that make these successes possible and commit to increasing access to better connect people to their natural resources, so these national treasures endure for generations to come.

Our delivery of our mission and our work environment are clearly so interdependent. This year’s work environment survey was the first service-wide sensing of how employees feel about their work environment. We surveyed not only permanent, full-time employees, but also our temporary workforce.

The results, which we intend to share in early 2020, will be used to establish a baseline of information that we can use to measure the changes in the Forest Service work environment over time, identify areas that need action to improve workplace culture and help identify the positive aspects of our current work environment. The results from this survey will inform changes to policies and practices about general workplace issues, as well as sexual harassment and other unwanted behaviors.

These results will continue to reveal hard truths. We may not want to hear them, but we need to. We are committed to breaking the silence, because we can’t address what we don’t know. I look forward to learning and growing with you all as we use the results of the workplace survey and Federal Employee Viewpoint survey to inform our ongoing effort to ensure all our employees feel safe, valued, respected and enjoy a sense of belonging.

In 2020, we will continue to engage in the work of becoming values-based, purpose-driven and relationship-focused organization. This Is Who We Are, which includes our agency core values, code and commitments and so much more, is a key component to doing that. We have activated a rich set of resources that the Forest Service has developed, including learning modules, videos and posters. Stay tuned as the Work Environment and Performance Office continues to lead us forward in this area.

Final Thoughts

We recognize that it’s hard to feel a connection when we’re at such removed levels. That’s why these calls are important. They demonstrate that we’re all real people, and we’re navigating these issues together. We know there are stresses in the workplace, and we are doing our best to address those.
We need to hear from you directly, on calls like this, so we can work together to figure out what we can do. I welcome your insights and encourage you to continue the conversation in our Leadership Corner Forum.

At this time of year, we know that we have many great employees, many of whom have retired or are planning to retire. I want to acknowledge them, but because she’s walked beside me every day, I especially want to acknowledge our Associate Chief, Lenise Lago.

Lenise will be retiring in January after providing exceptional service for over 30 years. Her commitment to service, to both the mission and the people, is extraordinary. She has worked tirelessly for both people and mission for the greater good of all. I hope you all will join me in wishing her well.

Last, as we kick off this holiday season with friends and family, let’s remember that many traditions celebrate the holiday season. Here at the Forest Service, diversity is one of our core values and we want to exemplify that in everything we do. I value your contributions to our agency and welcome the diversity of your opinions.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season as you celebrate your rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories with friends and family.

191212 Forest Service Employee Call from Forest Service on Vimeo.