National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Ken Graham became director of the National Weather Service last summer and recently surpassed his first six months as the agency’s 17th leader. Graham says his early strategy in the new job was to listen so employees could help identify priorities and chart a course for the agency’s direction in the coming years. By all accounts, he has increased access and communication across all levels of the agency and reduced bureaucracy, while organizing teams to carry out 10 key initiatives organized under the umbrella themes of Our People, Our Infrastructure, and Our Future.

Let’s chat with Ken to learn more about how these early days of his tenure unfolded, and what’s up ahead.

Q: You recently marked a huge milestone - your first six months on the job. How is it going?
A: It has been an amazing first six months. I’ve been so fortunate to visit 16 weather forecast offices, river forecast centers, and all nine national centers. I had the incredible opportunity to deliver keynote speeches at the National Emergency Management Association, Big Cities Emergency Management annual meeting, and the International Association of Emergency Managers. I also spoke at the NWSEO convention and was so impressed by their passion and dedication to the job. We talked about the future of the NWS and they had so much to offer. This travel has provided an incredible opportunity for me to hear about challenges and thoughts on the future from internal and external stakeholders.

   

Photo of Ken Graham
Ken Graham, director, NOAA National Weather Service

Q: Any early accomplishments you’d like to highlight?
A: I spent the first six months listening to internal and external feedback and charting a vision for the National Weather Service. Up front, setting the three pillars of importance set the tone for everything else to come. These pillars are Our People, Our Infrastructure, and Our Future. Communicating priority actions through “Ken’s 10” is helping us focus on things we need to do in the short-term and longer-term. We’re moving from slow evolution to rapid transformation on 10 key projects that will make us stronger as an agency.

Getting a vision out to emergency managers, the employee union, the workforce, media, and NOAA has been an incredible experience, especially considering how eager everyone has been to provide their ideas and their willingness to move from Evolve to Transform. Looking at how we conduct meetings and working towards narrowing down the focus and priorities to the core mission is incredibly exciting. Getting out of the gate quickly was important and that we did. I think we are doing a good job at communicating in a style that relates to everyone in regular meaningful words.

Q: Talk a little about your leadership and management style. What’s your strategy for inspiring and motivating people?
A: There is nothing to hide, so I’m always open, honest, and inclusive. I listen to concerns and try to do something about it since I spent the majority of my career on the front lines of the mission. I’ve always been somebody who is more about actions than talk. I set the vision and get out of the way, trusting folks to take us there with inclusive input, risk taking, no fear to bring up ideas and suggestions, and celebrate frequent wins. I try to bring some humor into what we do. The mission of saving lives and property is serious, so we need to smile and celebrate where we can. My leadership style is: set the vision, hold myself and others accountable, get results, and celebrate. I empathize with the challenges people experience. As a Myers-Briggs ENFP, I’m a big-picture thinker and a big time feeler.

Q: What have you learned in these first six months?
A: I’ve learned a lot about myself. This job is MUCH more emotional than I anticipated. Maybe it’s because the vision is something many of us have talked about for decades, and we’re now seeing it come to fruition. Maybe it’s all the support everyone is offering as we go down this road. Maybe it was the results of the burnout survey and actually having the ability to do something about it. Maybe it’s the enormity of the responsibility. I think it’s the raw emotions of being raised in this agency from intern to director and actually having such a humbling opportunity to serve the amazing people of the NWS. We’re transforming in ways that will make us more indispensable to our partners than ever.

I think about all this quite a bit and feel it. I underestimated the raw emotion of having this job and it shows at times when interacting with the workforce. The emotions are not bad or sad. The support and encouragement from across the country to transform and go together as “One NWS” gets to me in a wonderful way, and in that regard it’s all positive.

Q: Let’s talk about overcoming roadblocks in the workplace. Within the context of challenges you’ve encountered in the past few months, what advice do you have for employees on how to persevere and achieve their goals when things don’t always go as planned?
A: In any workplace, there will always be the sentiment of, “well, we’ve always done it that way.” The reality is that there are always improvements to be made. We are moving from Evolve to Transform, which takes some new ways of thinking and new ways to get things done. I’ve experienced some of this throughout my career. I encourage everyone to keep focused on our important mission, smartly innovating together to reach our vision, participate in teams, provide input and feedback, and always come up with solutions rather than repeatedly talking about the challenges (and solving them on the mid shift :-))

Leadership is an attitude, not a position. When leading change, remember taking risks does not always end up the way you want it to. You will have successes, but there are also times when you will need to adjust course. That’s okay! That’s all part of the process. Keep the passion and grit to see your ideas and dreams through. Be patient at times, because not all change happens overnight.

Q: What is the most profound, possibly even shocking, reality about the NWS that you didn't know about before becoming the National Weather Service director?
A: I already knew this, but the past six months have confirmed beyond a doubt for me that NWS employees are the most mission-oriented, passionate people out there. That’s to be celebrated because together we can harness this passion and do ANYTHING.

The profound, if not shocking revelation has been where that passion can also lead us. We have added so much workload, so many new programs, and even innovated independently then struggled to maintain what great things we’ve done. That passion plays a huge role in all of us trying to do EVERYTHING. I am challenging us to narrow down our priorities, accomplish things quicker and celebrate those wins, and ensure we reach for the vision together as “One NWS.”

Q: What’s one thing you will cherish most about these early days of your leadership tenure?
A: I will always cherish the deep relationships that were either developed or grown since I became the director. The first priority and what drives all of our priorities is the wellbeing of Our People. If you really think about it, like really think about it, we are surrounded by some of the most amazing and talented people in the world. We are co-workers, but many of us are also close friends. Some of the closest friends I’ve ever had are in the National Weather Service. I always say we are a family, and I mean it. I will always cherish the bond I have with so many people in the NWS family, which has grown stronger since I became the director.

Q: Okay, now for a more difficult question, related to staff burnout. Some say they are weighed down by endless meetings, taskers, and reports, leaving little room for the strategic and creative work that fuels and inspires them. This is a two-part question: (1) What can these employees do personally to avoid burnout, and (2) Why do you think agency employees are feeling the pinch, and what’s your plan to resolve it?
A: In many ways, we are victims of our own success. We have added workload and programs that have made too many things urgent, and that adds pressure and leads to burnout. I read every word of the burnout survey results...twice! I take it seriously and relate to so much of the feedback because I’ve experienced it in an operational environment myself. When I was the NHC director, I didn’t know if I would make it through the difficult 2020 hurricane season. The burnout survey results point to a clear desire for more scheduling flexibility, the right staffing to do the job, setting priorities, reliable equipment and IT, a clear vision for the future, and fewer surveys! I’ve thought a lot about this. You don’t fix burnout or improve morale through training, fluffy messages, more surveys, or idle talk. It’s about being heard and understood, and then achieving tangible results that make a positive difference.

We’re delivering these results together by establishing a clear vision, narrowing priorities to the core mission, and getting the resources that we need to excel. I can’t snap my fingers and make everything better overnight, but I hear the concern about burnout and I completely agree that we have to fix it, and we are fixing the things that are causing burnout. Let’s be excited about our future and go there together. Let’s take care of each other by placing Our People, Our Infrastructure, and Our Future as the three pillars of our journey. By establishing priorities through Ken’s 10 actions, we will be able to separate what’s important from what isn’t.

My motto on this is: We can’t do EVERYTHING, but as “One NWS,” we can do ANYTHING.

Q: We all agree that a diverse workforce is critical to our success as an agency. Yet, some feel that our diversity and retention efforts have not always been genuine or effective. They heard you say that “recruit” and “retain” are action verbs, but they feel that hiring managers lack the tools and guidance necessary to be effective. Recent DEIA tiger teams identified the WHAT, but not the HOW. So the question for you is: how will we as an agency work to overcome cultural barriers related to certain populations who are traditionally not interested in pursuing NWS career paths so we can increase workforce diversity?
A: I have a track record of making every place I’ve led more diverse. Getting there was and continues to be through action verbs. We can’t make the agency more diverse by wishing it into reality. We have to go out and actively make it happen by recruiting employees that represent the communities we serve, and it requires dedicated time and effort.

We’re taking action to address the How – NWS teams are developing recommendations for ways we can improve recruitment, tools for managers, and workplace culture. Improving diversity in STEM fields starts with outreach in elementary, middle, and high schools and could include college sponsorships. We need to spark excitement in young people about careers in science, engineering, IT, modeling, environmental law, budget, and government service. We need to create a culture that retains. NWS teams are looking at options for shift-flexibility to ensure we can offer a competitive work environment, consistent with the needs and expectations of the next generation. We need to more effectively and frequently use direct hiring authorities. When we meet exceptional people at schools, conferences, or meetings, we need to bring them into our NWS family. To do this, I need help. I need hiring managers to think of diversity as a verb. It takes effort, but it’s critical to have a diverse workforce that reflects the communities we serve. This is what will take NWS to the next level of equitable service.

Q: What do you look forward to most in your next six months as NWS director?
A: The next six months are as exciting as the first six months. Setting the vision, prioritizing with Ken’s 10 initiatives, getting staff buy-in for the future direction, and extensive travel to hear from our employees and partners was all in the plan for the first several months. Now it’s time to build the teams to develop these projects and make them happen. The teams being built need all of our support. These teams are focused on Ken’s 10 initiatives, have executive ownership across the NWS, have union membership, and will need input and ideas from across the agency along the way. This is only part of building the team. We have turnovers in key positions coming up, and I will spend significant time ensuring we have great folks in those roles. I cherish the leadership team I have now and look forward to building on past success to ensure our vision becomes a reality with an eye on transforming the agency for the next generation.

Q: Imagine it’s five years from now. In 2028, how will the National Weather Service be different from today? What differences come to mind, based on actions you are taking today?
A: I feel the urgency to see the vision for a more nimble, flexible, mobile NWS, working eye-to-eye with critical decision makers, become a reality. We are transforming the National Weather Service in three main ways that will make a big difference five years from now:

1) OUR PEOPLE: We will have the ability to focus on what matters most regarding our mission; those priorities that matter most to the partners we serve. We will have the flexibility to balance our personal and professional lives with a diverse workforce that helps us achieve equitable service delivery. We will have a culture free of fear to bring ideas and suggestions forward and a system that allows smart innovation as One NWS.

2) OUR INFRASTRUCTURE: Our forecasters will be mobile and able to produce a forecast no matter where they are, with access to the same tools they have today at the office – whether that is at an emergency operations center, on the front lines of a disaster, or at home. We’ll have a new weather.gov that is nimble, flexible, mobile, and ready for action no matter the bandwidth and device used to access it. We’ll be working more in a Cloud environment where data is accessible without single points of failure.

3) OUR FUTURE: We will have tools like Flood Inundation Mapping, ensemble models that feed probabilistic intelligence, and polygons that put science behind the worst case scenario and makes FACETS a reality. We will be closer to getting next generation radar along with fewer moving parts and new data every minute. We will continue to be an indispensable and integrated part of the nation’s Weather Enterprise; a world premier science-based agency contributing our service to first responders and those who make life-saving decisions every day.