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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Productivity Doesn’t Have to Stall During a Presidential Transition

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Everyone knows administration transitions are complex – thousands of leaders move seats as the current administration exits office and the new one comes in, bringing in new policies and strategies aimed at meeting election promises. That complexity starts with the often long process of identifying the new leader. In fact, over 36 percent of political leadership positions were vacant at the end of the Obama administration’s first year. But even once someone is identified, the transition is far from over, as the leader needs to be brought up-to-speed on the team, operations and mission. And while transition teams are put in place to make the leader’s onboarding as efficient as possible, employees are often left to navigate the complexities of a new administration alone.

This transition time can have a significant impact on employee performance. Over the past two years, CEB has studied the impact of organizational change on the productivity of the workforce and found that change is not only hard to manage, but it can have a five percent negative impact on performance. Because of this, many private-and-public sector organizations choose to double-down on change management, emphasizing traditional techniques like building commitment or improving employee buy-in for change efforts.

But this traditional approach anticipates employees will take a resistant posture to the change, which isn’t the root of this particular productivity issue. It’s not a lack of buy-in that causes productivity challenges in this case, because teams are connected to the mission and the direction of their leader. Rather, the federal workforce struggles with uncovering how to actually implement what is being asked by the new administration, or more acutely, what to do during the gap. Instead of focusing on commitment to change in order to foster productivity during the upcoming transitions, federal leaders need to focus on two things: directing workforce capacity and building workforce capability.

Directing Workforce Capacity

A new administration dictates a new set of priorities for the workforce to implement. However, during the gap time between leaders, it’s hard to anticipate what these new priorities will look like. This may explain why 60 percent of the federal HR leaders we surveyed anticipate functional improvement stalls during the upcoming administration transition and 70 percent believe new projects will face delays. In practice, this may result in project teams holding back on forward momentum until the new leader is in seat to make decisions. As a result, work is modified, delayed or even abandoned.

As administration transitions near, remaining leaders need to define short-term strategic priorities and direct employee capacity to meet them. The trick to achieving this quick execution is in enabling managers to adjust and adapt employees’ roles, set interim performance goals that are achievable and clearly articulate how employees should spend their time. 

Building Workforce Capability

Convincing employees to get behind a change in the organization can positively impact their productivity during it. But in an environment where the end state of that change is uncertain—as in who’s going to win the election—commitment to navigate through a transition only goes so far. By focusing on building employee capability to navigate organizational changes, agencies can realize a 16 percent impact on employee performance during transitions.

To build capability, remaining leaders need to help employees engage in the transition. They can do this by:

  • Building comprehension of the changes;
  • Providing direction to focus on the right activities;
  • Doubling down on outcome expectations and, most importantly;
  • Helping employees see where and who they can get support from to sustain performance. 

By and large, the federal workforce will adapt to the new administration. After all, their job is to work for the president—any president. However, commitment to changes in strategy and priorities is not enough to mitigate the productivity challenges that come during the transition from one administration to another. Rather than focusing on commitment alone, those leaders who are staying need to help employees understand where to prioritize their efforts and enable their capability by showing how to navigate through the transition, and not just why.

Liz Joyce is an executive advisor at CEB.

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