The way former colleagues describe him, Jeffrey Zients comes off as something of a data savant. Friends and associates paint the longtime Washington businessman as someone who relies heavily on data and has an intrinsic ability to make sense of it, a skill befitting his new role as federal chief performance officer and deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
"He is particularly good at forensic financial analysis," says David Bradley, who founded The Advisory Board Co. and the Corporate Executive Board Co. Zients held senior executive positions, including chief executive officer and chairman, at both companies. "There could be hundreds of numbers spread before you in spreadsheets and financial documents, and Jeff would say, 'Only these four matter. Don't they tell the story?' "
Bradley, who now owns Atlantic Media Co., publisher of Government Executive, calls Zients "as lucid, linear and rigorous a thinker as I have seen." This talent for numbers will be critical as Zients and his team develop and execute a governmentwide management agenda covering information technology, financial management, procurement, performance and human resources.
For many federal insiders, the White House's decision to pick Zients, after initial nominee Nancy Killefer withdrew, was a surprise. Unlike Killefer, who made a career in government consulting and was assistant Treasury secretary for management during the Clinton administration, Zients was an outsider. "I had spent my 20 years in the other Washington," he says.
In 1992, four years out of college, Zients joined the Advisory Board, a consulting firm focused on business best practices and performance benchmarking. Bradley says he was a force to be reckoned with almost immediately upon arrival. "I've never seen a 26-year-old with so much preternatural self-confidence and so instantly on to the merits -- to the merits of the people, of the concepts," Bradley says.
Zients climbed the ranks of the Advisory Board, becoming chief executive officer in 1998 and chairman in 2001. Bradley also tapped Zients to be chairman of the Corporate Executive Board, an Advisory Board spinoff.
When Zients was first approached about joining the administration, he was managing partner of Portfolio Logic LLC, a business and health care investment firm he founded in 2003. Zients says he was walking into a meeting when he got a call from a friend who said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., wanted to know whether he would be interested in the performance chief job.
"I am someone who is normally quite analytic and tend to think things through, but as soon as I got that call I was instantly excited about the possibility of serving, and serving in this capacity, and just honored to have received that call," Zients says.
According to Warner, it was almost happenstance that he was asked to weigh in on potential candidates. "I was talking with White House personnel on another subject, and because of my business background and state government performance, they asked me if I knew anyone who would be good. I had two names in mind, but [Zients] was by far the first choice." Warner says he had known Zients for years through Washington-Northern Virginia business circles.
The White House was looking for someone with the ability to get things done, Warner says, to view a problem through others' eyes but also set and execute an agenda. "He fit the bill," he says.
Advisory Board Chairman Frank J. Williams wasn't surprised Zients took the White House job. "The idea of getting involved where he could have a broader impact on the government and the country, I knew at some point that would appeal to him," Williams says. "I didn't know he would do it now, but when I heard he was, I was pretty excited for the government."
In the January issue of Government Executive, Elizabeth Newell examines Zients' prospects at change.