Listen and Learn

Here are six critical competencies the new political appointees will need to succeed.

The U.S. model of federal management espouses the idea of presidential appointees who are "citizen soldiers." Like minutemen, these managers who arrive with a new administration must lead effectively at a moment's notice. They must take responsibility for a vast bureaucracy and a policymaking process that has significant legislative implications.

By definition, these appointees are highly competent, or they wouldn't have gotten this far. They also made it through the gantlet of character tests required by the vetting process.

Some appointees have government management experience, but it is unlikely they served their entire career in federal service. Others might not have served in the federal government at all. Either way, most will need to polish up at least some of their knowledge, skills and abilities in the context of their new position.

Six competencies are especially important for these top-level policy developers and managers. They are based on frameworks developed for public and private organizations, and the Office of Personnel Management has validated them for use by senior federal executives. Similar models are in use among the military services.

1. Leading for Results

Appointees should create an accountability environment with metrics that matter from the "shop floor and to the top floor," connecting operational data to overall agency and administration goals. This environment should foster strategic thinking about the organization's vision and positioning to achieve its goals. It should promote entrepreneurship that invokes Franklin Delano Roosevelt's call for "bold, persistent experimentation."

2. Managing Change

The primary theme of Barack Obama's presidential campaign was change. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter developed an eight-step formula for managing change that extends from creating a sense of urgency through communication of a vision to institutionalizing new approaches. To be an effective leader of change, an appointee must have intuition and maintain optimism in the face of adversity and malicious compliance.

3. Speaking the Same Language

Financial, human capital, procurement and technology management can be tricky business in the federal government. There are many pitfalls in the legislative and regulatory processes that have to be navigated. While appointees will come to their jobs with high levels of technical ability, they might need tutoring in the specialized knowledge required in federal circles.

4. Leading Others

A presidential appointment is always about leadership. And leadership is about attracting and motivating followers. Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, "If you want people to build a ship, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." An appointee should build networks of career employees, stakeholders, members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers and private citizens-and then inspire them to launch the ship of presidential goals.

5. Leading Yourself

It is easy to skip over this exercise, but an honest self-evaluation at the start of a new enterprise is an important first step.

To ensure success, appointees should examine their motivation for public service, reflect on their ability to inspire and build trust, and review their emotional intelligence.

6. Thinking Globally

Virtually every political appointee will have to monitor the global scene constantly to anticipate the effects of actions and trends on their own work. The impact of factors such as technology, cultural change, trade patterns and capital flows are all at the forefront of an appointee's job.

Training on these and other critical competencies must be provided for appointees throughout their tenure, as well as for their counterparts in career positions: members of the Senior Executive Service, admirals, generals and others.

The best advice of all might be: Carry on. Get something done. Again in the words of FDR: "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something."

G. Edward DeSeve, senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute for Government and senior fellow at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, is author of The Presidential Appointee's Handbook (Brookings Institution Press, December 2008).

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