Firing the Boss

After annual reports are released, corporations that didn’t do well often dismiss their top executives in the belief that better results would be produced by their successors.  Sometimes that works, sometimes not.

Analogizing this to the Postal Service, the ongoing service crisis is resulting in calls for the dismissal of the postmaster general.  As with a company, such action is assumed to be key to righting the ship or beginning a positive improvement trend; but also as with a company, that assumes the CEO is the primary factor in the company’s performance.

The start

A company’s board members will pick a CEO because that individual has the background and qualities they want, and will be expected to manage the company accordingly.  At the USPS, the Governors of the Postal Service hire the PMG, and that person can be assumed to reflect the governors’ perspective on how the USPS should be run, including what actions are needed to address perceived problems.

How the board came upon Louis DeJoy and why they hired him is known for certain to very few.  Given DeJoy’s political record and the political atmosphere of mid-2020, however, many accepted as dogma that he was chosen to single-handedly sway the vote-by-mail process in favor of the president.

After the election, a variety of factors combined to cause the most severe decline in service performance in anyone’s memory, and fingers quickly pointed to DeJoy as the culprit.  His removal was portrayed as essential to restoring quality service, as if the pandemic and its impact on USPS staffing and operations apparently wouldn’t matter anymore.

Politics

The PMG’s ties to the now former president have not been forgotten even with a new administration in office, and politicians who opposed the former president continue to blame the Postal Service’s ills on Louis DeJoy and the board.

For example, in late January, Rep. Bill Pascrell (NJ 9th) wrote to the new president urging him to fire all the sitting governors and replace them with “a new slate of leaders to begin the hard work of rebuilding our Postal Service for the next century.”  He blamed the incumbents for being “silent” while their chosen PMG implemented changes that “negatively impacted the quality and timeliness of mail service nationally.”  Pascrell cited “DeJoy’s efforts to dismantle mail sorting machines, cut overtime, restrict deliveries, and remove mailboxes” as proof.

As anyone reading the postal press knows, those allegations are from the scripted song sheet of the American Postal Workers Union, whose president seems to be on the speed dial of every reporter working the postal beat.  Neither the accuracy of the union’s allegations about DeJoy’s mission – if he ever had one – nor the reasons for any decisions he’s made since last June are questioned any longer by the media.  Repetition of the original assertions – left unrefuted by the USPS – has transformed them into accepted facts.

What’s received little attention is that, as a private sector executive, not inoculated with the postal culture, DeJoy is seen as a threat to the comfy status quo enjoyed by the postal unions.  Aside from whether he ever would challenge bedrock elements of the unions’ contracts – like the no-layoff clause or baked-in cost of living adjustments – the fact that he’s from a business environment where such provisions would be absurd is threat enough for the unions.  Moreover, being from the private sector, his willingness to consider greater worksharing or outsourcing hints too strongly of privatization for the unions to tolerate.

The question

Regardless, the question is simple: looking at his record, is Louis DeJoy at fault for the current service decline, and, if so, should he be fired?  Answering the second part of the question naturally requires answering the preceding part first.  To do that, in turn, requires looking at the obvious (and less obvious) reasons why service performance is what it is.

As we’ve stated in previous commentaries, it’s difficult in the specific case of the past few months’ service to separate the obvious factors – pandemic-related absenteeism, decreased air transportation, and an unprecedented surge in parcel volume – from the subtler impact of whatever else may be going on below the surface.

Our contention has been that, even without a pandemic, service depends on a workforce willing to optimize positive discretionary effort.  Any weakness in such a commitment, as would be expected given the postal labor unions’ outspoken dislike for the former president and, in turn, his alleged minion at L’Enfant Plaza, could significantly impact service.

As noted above, reading media reports about the USPS, it’s clear that the unions continue to paint DeJoy as the source of all problems.  So, does that mean that simply replacing DeJoy with someone more acceptable to the unions will improve service?  Is the fix to the agency’s service problem as simple as “firing the boss”?

Leadership

Given the exceptional concurrent circumstances, and the swirl of speculative allegations, it’s difficult to objectively evaluate DeJoy’s actions over the seven months since his installation.  Presumably, if the impacts of the pandemic on the postal workforce and exceptional parcel volume ease, service should stabilize, if not improve, independently.  In turn, the question would be how much of that would result from, or occur despite, what DeJoy’s done since June 2020.

More pragmatically, the critical question would be not whether his actions have been influential but whether his leadership has been effective.  If the public comments made by governors during the open session of their recent meeting are any indication, the Board remains squarely behind him, but what about the rest of the Postal Service?

It seems obvious that by being painted from the start as the emissary of an unpopular president, disliked by the postal unions, hurt DeJoy from the start.  This was worsened by his being an outsider who could neither relate to nor be related to by postal employees; someone clearly unfamiliar with the agency’s culture; and someone who, despite a logistics background, had little understanding of the Postal Service’s sprawling infrastructure and how it operates.

DeJoy did himself no favors, either, by promptly implementing measures to control overtime and extra trips even as the agency was trying to cope with pandemic-related absenteeism and losses of transportation capacity.  Those arguably reasonable but clearly ill-timed actions did little to impress colleagues or quiet critics.  Looking back, those actions also may have foretold what’s now developing.

Though maybe less obvious, the claims advanced last summer may also have disadvantaged DeJoy among the management ranks.  Aside from how much supervisors, managers, and executives shared the unions’ allegations about the reasons for his selection, it’s still likely they naturally restrained their support for him until they could evaluate whether he knew what he was doing, or at least was willing to take the time to “learn the business” before making changes.

Regardless, no matter what his skills may be, if DeJoy – or any leader – is deprived of a chance to show leadership, for whatever reasons, his likelihood for success will be diminished accordingly.

Warning signs

The departure of senior executives since last June may have been seen by others as a sign that those individuals did not want to be part of whatever they could see developing.  Last summer’s radical realignment of senior management, including the movement of experienced managers to different areas and the hiring of outsiders to fill new positions, also may have been interpreted as signals that others in the executive stratum found worrisome.  (That reorganization, being done when it was, also can be seen now as a piece of an emerging and troubling picture.)

Just as craft employees can elect to contribute or withhold discretionary effort, so, too, can those in USPS management; executives can offer advice to help the new PMG succeed or let him flounder along on his own.

In that regard, how much of what DeJoy has done been based on input solicited from and readily given by those around him, and how much has he been left to find his own way?  How much has he asked, and how well has he listened or taken advice from experienced subordinates?  Naturally, the answers to such questions would never be discernable to anyone outside the postal Kremlin.

Regardless of the circumstances and perceptions surrounding his selection, what this boils down to is how well has Louis DeJoy shown, or been given the chance to show, leadership?  Has he shown his managers and executives that he knows what he’s doing, that he understands the agency he was hired to run, and that he has both a coherent vision for the USPS and a rational plan to implement it?  Does he have the support of postal management or simply its obedience?

He’s clearly been neutralized as the agency’s leader in the mind of craft employees and, thanks to the unions’ effective media tactics (unopposed, as usual, by USPS responses), likely in the minds of Congressional politicians and the public as well.  Has DeJoy been successful in showing the USPS management team that he’s a leader that they want to follow, or has he shown that he’s just another loose cannon outsider they’d prefer to leave to his own devices, knowing he’ll eventually move on?

In turn, the question becomes not whether Louis DeJoy is, or could be, a competent PMG, but whether his opportunity to do so – to lead – has been fatally contaminated.  Have the attitudes and purposes assigned to him successfully tainted any objective evaluation of his performance?  Have those who fear disruptions to the status quo so successfully undermined DeJoy as to make USPS employees – in the craft and higher – doubt his judgement and reluctant to accept his leadership?

Perhaps more importantly, has he hurt himself?

Loss of confidence

The answer to the preceding question, which may be decisive, is reflected by the growing pattern of doubt being expressed about not just the direction DeJoy is taking the Postal Service but the manner in which he’s doing it.

Looking at the midsummer decisions about overtime and late trips, then the subsequent disruptive reorganization of the agency’s management, and now his fixation on using the new pricing authority allowed by postal regulators, a pattern of situational disregard is emerging about DeJoy’s actions that many are finding increasingly worrisome.

This has been exacerbated by recent reports that a long-term plan for the USPS – on which he and the Board have been collaborating – will include both degradations of service as well as significant price increases.

Much may need to be done to restore the Postal Service to health, but many are coming to doubt whether Louis DeJoy has the understanding of the agency to be the one to do it.  Like Marvin Runyon, who sat in the PMG’s chair nearly thirty years ago, DeJoy may know the postal machine needs fixing but lacks the mechanical knowledge of its inner workings to make repairs prudently.  Like Runyon, he’s not taken the time to “learn the business” before setting out to change it.

Critically, he’s not internalized the business of mail.  Mail users now have options outside the USPS and, in turn, are less tolerant of poor service and higher prices.  Yet DeJoy’s reported plans to turn around the agency, by degrading service and raising prices, clearly ignores that circumstance, leading many USPS stakeholders – ratepayers and the mailing industry – to the conclusion that DeJoy has not learned the business and that, accordingly, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Conversations with industry leaders are described as more him telling them what he’s going to do than asking, and learning from them, what he should do.

His single-minded approach might fit well in a corporate world but not in the unique world of the Postal Service.

As doubts about DeJoy’s leadership snowball, they understandably expand to the board that chose him.  Do they understand the agency any better than DeJoy, or are they, too, mistranslating what works in corporate America into what they assume will work for a government agency?

A failing company cannot regain its footing simply by axing the boss if the board who chooses the replacement still has the same qualities in mind for the next one.  So, like a private company’s shareholders, the Postal Service’s stakeholders are correct in asking whether just the CEO needs replacing or whether those who hired him should be replaced as well.  Regardless, new leadership is needed, and quickly. 

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