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Many Unhappy Returns

One Man's Quest to Turn Around the Most Unpopular Organization in America

When Charles Rossotti was asked in 1997 to become the first businessperson to head the IRS, this description of the job was provided by a former commissioner: “The hours are impossible, the pay is lousy – but you get lots of abuse.” Undeterred, Rossotti gamely accepted this “job from hell” and set out to transform the largest agency in the US government. But the challenges he faced were enormous: 100,000 demoralized employees, a tangled and antiquated computer system (with no email!), and service levels that earned the agency the lowest rating of any institution in America.

Operating in a political fishbowl (and with little support from either Clinton or Bush), Rossotti pushed through top-to-bottom reforms during his five years as commissioner that dramatically improved the IRS. This engaging book, written with plenty of humor, describes in detail how he did it. And it offers conclusive proof that any organization – no matter how big, bureaucratic, or troubled – can be changed for the better and relatively quickly. Here are a few of the many lessons that Rossotti says he learned from his experience:

  • Establish priorities, and promise only what you can deliver. On his first day of work, Rossotti was handed a change mandate that included 5,000 proposals from congressional and oversight committees. Within a few months, he winnowed this number to 157 near-term changes (some of them simple, like updating addresses to reduce the volume of undelivered mail) that would bring tangible improvement in service to taxpayers. “In the face of overwhelming pressure,” he says, “it is important to do a limited number of things that one can deliver on, not simply to promise everything to everybody.”
  • Make sure you know what's going on at the front lines. Though some people considered his behavior eccentric, Rossotti traveled constantly around the country to talk to people at all levels inside and outside the IRS and made it a point to dive deeply into specific problems that he thought were important. “I have no idea how I could have gained even a slightly accurate understanding of how the IRS was actually working without doing this,” he says.
  • Remember that successful change requires honest communication. To gain the confidence of employees in an organization that was riddled with mistrust, Rossotti chose to level with people on the bad news as well as the good and worked hard to get everyone involved in solving problems rather than just throwing darts. “People will often forgive mistakes and accept not getting everything they want,” he says, “if they feel that leaders are making principled decisions based on knowledge of the facts.”

    What’s most impressive about this book is the leadership profile that emerges. With crises exploding around him almost daily, many of them played up in the press, Rossotti was able to maintain a keen, analytical detachment from the turmoil and focus on his long-term mission. His story as the man who changed the IRS provides fascinating reading for any business leader.

Many Unhappy Returns is available from Harvard Business School Press for $26.95 and can be purchased online at www.hbspress.org.

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