Leading resilient teams to maximize impact in 2020
This interview marks the seventh installment in the Making an Impact series, a collection of profiles and articles introducing some of our best and brightest leaders – individuals who are making tremendous impacts in the government sectors we serve.
Laura Parsons, Senior Director, Federal BPO
Laura is the Senior Director of our Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) business unit for Maximus Federal, overseeing projects supporting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the University of California, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
We caught up with Laura to discuss lessons she's learned professionally and her advice on finding work-life balance and staying productive through times of stress.
What do you love most about your job? What are the biggest challenges you face?
I love the ever-changing nature of the work we do and the evolving challenges that come when adapting to changing circumstances. I also love knowing that our work helps people navigate complex government programs and systems and that at the end of the day, every call we take helps someone. Usually, the biggest challenges we face are related to working with clients to stay on top of ever-changing priorities and regulations and finding ways to innovate and add technology and automation to our programs, some of which have been around decades.
These days, however, the biggest challenge is making sure our employees feel engaged and supported. With everything going on in the country and the world, that's become more critical and challenging than ever. While everyone understands the need to be at home to stay safe, being at home for such long periods, combined with schools being closed, fewer childcare options, and months of stress, has had mental health impact for many people. Luckily Maximus hasn't shied away from trying to address those challenges and has made resources available. Still, it has been hard to balance the ongoing need to manage operations with supporting staff who need extra time to regroup and recharge. But, we're doing it, and I'm so proud of how resilient our teams have been.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Take calculated risks, put yourself out there, and know when to be the squeaky wheel.
How do you balance work and life responsibilities? How does Maximus support your work-life balance?
My work-life balance approach has evolved over the years, and I'm not sure it's the kind of philosophy you can ever perfect. Certainly, working remotely due to the pandemic has placed additional stress on this area, making things more manageable and more challenging at the same time.
Since the start of remote work and COVID-19 restrictions began, I have tried to focus 100% on work when I need to, and then wholly unplug the rest of the time. I'm always available for emergencies, but I do turn off email on my mobile and keep my laptop off the kitchen table once I'm "done" for the day. Everyone is different, but I need short breaks from work to refocus for the next day and keep perspective on the big-picture issues.
I am lucky to have a role that is flexible enough to allow me to step away for a bit when I need to, whether it's for a coffee break, a walk, or even grabbing lunch with someone.
The tools Maximus recently made available to all employees — Headspace and Wellbeats — have been great, and I have tried to take advantage of them when I can. I find myself reminding my team more and more frequently to step away from their computers for just a little bit to get a break because the cadence of work is so different when you're working at home by yourself all day. Without those short water cooler moments and social interactions that naturally occur in an office, it's too easy to forget to come up for air.
I am a true believer that people work their best when they get a break and can recharge through family, friends, or hobbies. I try to model that for my team because I know that, as a leader, my actions set expectations (even when I don't want them to!).
I love the ever-changing nature of the work we do and the evolving challenges that come when adapting to changing circumstances.
What separates excellent programs from average ones?
No question — the people! That might be the obvious answer, but it's true. Processes evolve, technologies can be changed or updated, but having the right people in place to use and embrace those processes and technologies is critically important. Our clients have high expectations — in my opinion, rightfully so.
For the most part, it's public funds that pay our invoices, so the expectations should be high! Managing those expectations, anticipating the client agency's future challenges, and helping clients identify where they should focus their innovation efforts are critical skills for program leaders. Program leaders also set the stage and culture for the rest of the program, which results in front-line supervisors and staff who are excited about the program mission and want to come to work every day. Even a program with the most innovative, intuitive technology, positive client relationships, low-risk financials, and experienced program team will not be as successful if front line staff aren't engaged and don't feel supported.
What was a hard lesson you have learned professionally?
There are so many from which to choose!
One lesson I learned that I not only remind myself about but also find myself reminding my team from time to time, is that "it's business, it's not personal." Whether negotiating subcontracting arrangements, debating attendance policies, or completing performance reviews, we are making the best decision we can for the business. Sometimes the best decision means making sure we are taking care of our staff as best we can — like Maximus did when it released the COVID leave options — but when our colleagues become our friends, it's sometimes hard to remember that lesson.