Ivan Zoric

Bringing Leaders Up to Speed

Same president, but managers still should expect new appointees.

Had Mitt Romney won the presidency, there’s no question January would have been a time of upheaval for federal managers. Still, as President Obama settles into a second term, managers should not expect the status quo. The end of a first term is a natural point of departure for political appointees planning to return to the private sector or to step down otherwise. While the transition surely will be on a smaller scale, managers still have to prepare for new leadership and shifting priorities. 

In a post-election survey by the Government Business Council, the research arm of Government Executive, 38 percent of managers reported feeling transition-related anxiety. Another 34 percent said they were very concerned about how the transition would affect morale. 

As with any other transition, career executives have some responsibility to help new appointees get up to speed quickly. Clay Johnson, who was Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management during the George W. Bush administration, advised federal managers at Government Executive’s September Excellence in Government conference to structure discussions with new leaders in terms of the agency’s risks and opportunities and to be as candid as possible. “When you talk about your risks, you have to be recognizing there are risks. It can’t be all Kumbaya,” Johnson said. “There are things—internal and
external—that may prevent success. So how do we make sure the risks are minimized and opportunities maximized?”

At the conference, John Acton, the Homeland Security Department’s executive director of leader development, advised adopting a can-do attitude despite the temptation to discuss past failures and shoot down ideas that have been heard before. “When you have a political appointee coming in, a positive approach can be a really effective one,” he said. Managers should present options that identify areas of challenge and opportunity. “You want to help them think through the agenda they have, not the agenda someone else had in the past,” he said. This is true whether that agenda is at the opposite end of the political spectrum or the result of a different leadership style in the same administration. 

Career executives should be prepared to sum up their work and that of their employees, highlighting what the office does, who the key people are, and which programs are under way, says Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project. It also doesn’t hurt to research what was said on the campaign trail. 

An appointee will be attempting to implement the president’s goals, so it can be helpful to know in advance what those might be. Johnson advises managers to focus on the desired outcome. “A killer question that will stun the people you work with is, ‘What’s the picture of success three years or two years or one year from now?’ Start with that,” he said at the conference.

Showing a political appointee the ropes and selling the importance of the organization is stressful, but it can provide a much-needed reboot and a wave of enthusiasm. A second-term transition is a natural time for innovation, Lisa Brown, acting chief performance officer, said in September. The energy and excitement that come with a renewed chance to prioritize and focus on meeting goals should be viewed as an opportunity—even for the most jaded manager.

Elizabeth Newell Jochum covered human resources, management and contracting at Government Executive for three years.