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Driving Change Management

A Conversation with Kathy Enstrom, Trailblazer in Federal Law Enforcement

by Gina Jurva

In the rapidly evolving landscape of technology adoption, governments aren’t just embracing change; they're leading the charge. Implementing robust change management strategies becomes the linchpin in this tech-driven transformation, ensuring that the public sector doesn't just keep pace with innovation but harnesses its full potential for the benefit of the citizens it serves.

In our recent interview with Kathy Enstrom, Director of Investigations for the Moore Tax Law Group and a former Executive within Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS CI), we delved into her illustrious career spanning nearly 28 years in federal law enforcement and how she drove change management across her organization. 

Enstrom, a recognized leader at the IRS, held high-ranking positions overseeing operations across the United States, showcasing her commitment to justice and her influential role in driving transformative change in a highly complex, hierarchical government organization. She discusses the crucial role of a sound change management strategy in the public sector, particularly when it comes to technology adoption. 

Here we explore Enstrom's wealth of experience, leadership insights, and her unique perspective on navigating and revolutionizing intricate government structures.

Kathy Enstrom (left), Sean Hert (center), and Eric Kolbeck (right) speak at Everlaw Summit '23.
Kathy Enstrom (left) speaks at Everlaw Summit '23 alongside Sean Hert, from the Ohio State Attorney General's Office, and Erik Kolbeck, Assistant Attorney General at Office of the Minnesota Attorney General

You recently moved from public service to the private sector – a big change. Describe what it was like adapting to a new organizational culture and technology environment.

It’s a big change. You’re right. Diving into the private sector from the massive world of the federal government is no joke. It's like switching gears from this huge, structured environment to a smaller, more boutique-style tax law firm. Mindset shift? You bet.

Imagine going from the well-defined, procedural world of government work—where there's a procedure for pretty much everything—to this more, independent vibe of a smaller firm. It's like, "Okay, gotta switch from playing in a big orchestra to a tight-knit band now."

The culture within a law firm is so different in the sense that there are expectations for you to work independently toward a common goal and assist, you know, the lead attorneys, in my case. 

And oh, the tech transition. The technology in the government is quite good, but they're not able to stay on the cutting edge. And they're not as agile as the private sector. So, obviously, this is because of security concerns and the procurement process of acquiring new technology.  But a small firm can be more agile and make that change very quickly or adapt something new. Obviously, something like AI and ChatGPT is now being used within law firms throughout the country.

How did the IRS-CI approach the adoption of new technologies during your tenure? 

Back in my IRS days around 2010, extensive change management training was introduced for managers and employees nationwide – this big change. They wanted to make sure that all employees would be able to adapt to change differently, but more importantly, that leaders knew how to lead through change management. You can imagine, it's very difficult to convince some longer-time employees to make that change. They employ the old adage, ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it.’  

But in the world of criminal investigations, especially with the rise of financial crimes, we couldn't afford to be stuck in the past, we have to be on the forefront on any financial-related crime in order to be effective as an agency. 

Give me an example of how you navigated that? 

Sure, one of the other areas I helped in developing – a cybercrime strategy for IRS-CI back in 2015. And 2015, now, that wasn't the beginning of Bitcoin as we all know, but it was still in the infancy where maybe Bitcoin was only 100 bucks as opposed to what it is now. And so, again, they were forward thinking that, "Hey, we need to be in this space because there is a lot of financial activity happening in the cyber world."

With that experience, I learned that there were some steps you needed to go through. First of all, have the awareness of needing this change and identify what it is that you need to do, and then the desire to do it. And that may sound very simple, but there's a process there. The desire may not be embraced by all top level. 

Communication, and training, and then reinforcement, and reinforcement, and reinforcement. 

Again, long-term government employees are like, "Why are we needed to learn about this? Nobody's gonna buy Bitcoin, it's fake money." And so, you had to have the very top saying, "No, no, no, I want do this and we have to do this." So that backing is absolutely number one.

And then, the next step, you get a team together, and you research it. And not just research in the sense of reading things, but talking to people like, ‘What are you seeing out there?’ Talk to employees who might be working in that space already and are on the forefront, what do they want to see out of it? Then develop that strategy and pitch it. You have to pitch it and go through this whole convincing of senior leaders to take this on and change the future of the organization. 

Once it does get approved by everybody, then there's needing to be training. Communication, and training, and then reinforcement, and reinforcement, and reinforcement. 

How important was it to engage key stakeholders in the adoption of new technologies? 

Very. Successfully encouraging early technology adoption involves a strategic approach. During the initial phase, I chatted with key individuals, like frontline agents and leaders across the CI spectrum. By actively seeking their opinions and incorporating their insights into the technology implementation plan, I created a sense of involvement. 

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have buy-in from employees at all organizational levels.

This approach fostered influencers or promoters—individuals who felt heard and saw their input shaping the future. These influencers played a crucial role in garnering support and generating excitement about the upcoming changes, akin to social media influencers in the online realm.

Yes, I cannot stress enough how important it is to have buy-in from employees at all organizational levels. It's critical for every manager to comprehend the change and address any concerns internally – working with employees, hearing their concerns and addressing them.

However, once the technology is implemented, there should be a unified voice promoting the change consistently, from managers down to employees. Achieving alignment on the value and necessity of the change is essential. 

Now for law firms, adopting new technology, such as ediscovery software, the challenge is getting those individuals accustomed to existing tools, to embrace the change. Providing avenues for early feedback, allowing them to express their needs, and ensuring prompt and thorough training are key strategies.

While the training may not be billable initially, investing in it generates crucial support from employees across all levels, turning them into advocates who can reassure their colleagues about the benefits of the new tool. 

Once the technology is implemented, there should be a unified voice promoting the change consistently, from managers down to employees.

You've got to maintain a unified voice throughout the organization. Dissenting voices can impede the swift and effective adoption of the change.

How did you measure the success of technology-driven changes during your tenure in the government? 

Well, the government excels in utilizing metrics and statistics to assess the impact of changes, such as tracking tool usage and outcomes. While metrics are valuable, planned feedback sessions with employees play a crucial role. These sessions delve into their perspectives on the change, exploring what improvements they envision, how they've engaged with it, and whether it was successful. 

Emphasizing the importance of transparency, I recommend not only conducting surveys but also making the results public, demonstrating a commitment to addressing employee feedback. This approach fosters a positive perception of change, showing that the organization actively listens and acts on suggestions. 

While metrics are valuable, planned feedback sessions with employees play a crucial role.

Despite the government's proficiency in measuring metrics, there is room for improvement, especially in incorporating regular surveys during change initiatives and ensuring continued follow-up post-implementation.

Yeah, it was a little different with the lawyers. Communicating the “why” of change, especially in partnership with legal professionals, is crucial. The strategy must be comprehensive, starting from top leadership down. 

My old boss, former IRS Commissioner John Andrew Koskinen, always stressed the importance of repeating information in various ways for effective understanding and acceptance, highlighting the need for multiple communication methods to embed change into the organizational culture.

It's fascinating to me that he said that, because frequently throughout my career, I'd be like, ‘Well, I told that person once that this is the way I wanted it, they should have known.’ But, you know, you're human, and you may not have remembered that specific item. You need to say it multiple ways in order for it to get complete buy-in. So I always thought about that later. You can't just say it once and expect it to be done by everybody. You need to reinforce it multiple times, multiple methods in order for it to completely be ingrained and adapted into the culture.

How do you account for those different learning styles? 

So, we know people have diverse learning styles—some prefer hands-on experience, others respond better to visual aids or auditory methods. It's crucial to employ varied approaches to cater to different audiences.

I firmly believe that collaboration is a key source of learning and innovation, allowing individuals to share ideas and develop a strong network.

In a recent case at my current job, my colleague needed to grasp details of a matter quickly, so I opted for a visual approach, using stickies and a poster board to illustrate complex information, providing an efficient alternative to a lengthy report. Adapting to individuals' learning preferences and time constraints is key.

Collaboration among professionals from diverse teams, plays an integral role in change management. As an executive leader in government, was that ever an issue for you? 

You know, encouraging collaboration has always been kind of natural for me. Maybe because I was an athlete. Throughout school and work life, I've thrived in team-oriented environments, like sports or in the mission-driven setting of IRS-CI. 

I firmly believe that collaboration is a key source of learning and innovation, allowing individuals to share ideas and develop a strong network. Bringing people together enhances team dynamics, ensuring collective goals are achieved.

And the resources, you don't have... I mean, I've mentioned this before a little bit that the government has a lot of resources, but honestly, they don't in some respects. There are limited resources, there's only so many prosecutors to move a case forward. And so, you have to make sure that you're working as a team in order to get that ball across the finish line.