How Can the Next President Build a Strong Political and Career Leadership Team?

Every management agenda starts with people.

The success of a presidential administration rests in the hands of leadership—political appointees and career executives who are responsible for implementing policy, achieving mission outcomes and running government operations. By focusing on leadership talent as a key priority, the next president can significantly enhance government’s capacity for political and career executives to deliver strong results for the nation.

In May, the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service co-hosted a roundtable to discuss how effective leaders can help drive successful outcomes for the next presidential term. An exceptional group of current and former senior officials from administrations of both parties, leaders from Capitol Hill, as well as experts from academia and the private and nonprofit sectors participated in a robust discussion. The meeting was the second of six planned roundtables in our “Management Roadmap” series, part of a multipronged Ready to Govern (#Ready2Govern) initiative, through which the Partnership seeks to improve the transfer of power and knowledge between administrations.

The IBM Center is pleased to collaborate with the Partnership to help the next administration get off to a strong start, and build sustained management excellence. We are grateful for the many distinguished leaders who contributed their time and insights, and to former deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs Scott Gould for his expert facilitation of the session.

Why Is Leadership Talent Key to Success?

The Partnership and the IBM Center have long advocated that attention be paid to leadership issues. Skilled leaders are a powerful determinant of organizational success. Investing time and resources in talent management has proved over time to improve outcomes from a mission, managerial, political and economic perspective. This is not just a public sector challenge—fostering executive talent is a challenge in the private sector, where leading companies wrestle with similar issues.

Effective leaders can set direction by building vision, allocating resources, and fostering a culture of ethics and trust. This frame enables leaders to guide results across the talent “value chain”—in which organizations recruit, hire, compensate, onboard, train, manage, evaluate, develop and separate/retire a productive workforce. Indeed, talent is essential to a well-implemented performance management cycle that includes strategy, resources, operations, execution and evaluation, as well as strong change management that includes communication, engagement, feedback, priority setting and measurement to address influencers within and between organizations in the government ecosystem.

In the public sector, leadership talent includes a broad array of executives whose collaboration—or lack thereof—sets the tone for agency and program success or failure. These executives include political appointees and Senior Executive Service-level career officials in program and functional areas (such as human resources, information technology, finance, acquisition), who guide civil servants and contractors and connect with state and local government, Congress and even the judiciary to deliver on agency missions.

The May roundtable discussion started with three premises: 

  • Political appointees and career SES form the leadership core of our government. Good leaders are essential to strong public sector outcomes.
  • Leadership matters in achieving presidential priorities. Without effective leadership the next administration’s objectives will not be met, and the next White House will manage more risks and fewer opportunities.
  • The Ready to Govern initiative is focused on setting the next administration up for success. That starts with effective political and career SES leadership.

Building on the Current Leadership Initiatives

Good management is a nonpartisan issue. Roundtable participants from both parties recognize the importance of building on success. In the current administration, key building blocks include two new initiatives aimed at strengthening leadership in government, highlighted in the FY 2016 budget request:

  • White House Advisory Group on SES Reform. The group, composed of current and aspiring SES, as well as senior level and senior technical professionals, is putting together a set of recommendations for improving the way the federal government recruits, hires, develops and retains senior career leaders.
  • White House Leadership Development Program. The program, currently under development, will provide an opportunity for future senior career leaders to participate in rotational assignments and drive progress on cross-agency priority goals. The program will help develop leadership competencies and give participants a chance to build coalitions and work across government to solve problems.

In addition, several agencies are piloting new approaches to recruiting, hiring and onboarding executives, with the goal of reducing the time to hire, improving the quality and diversity of new hires—foremost among these are hiring authorities for the U.S. Digital Service at the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration’s 18F program, and expedited hiring processes for cybersecurity professionals.

Roundtable Insights

Roundtable discussions addressed five different aspects of the leadership talent issue. Following are some of the suggestions from each area.

Strengthening the SES. Participants focused on ways to strengthen the SES through training, organization and operations:

  • Increase clarity of expectations and accountability for SES leaders.
  • Train and develop SES leaders as an ongoing priority.
  • Strengthen the SES as an enterprisewide asset: Implement rotational assignments; consider a smaller cadre of management focused cross-agency executives such as a “Public Service Executive Corps,” or create a top tier of “enterprise executives” who deploy across government.
  • Build a stronger leadership pipeline (internal and external).

Innovations in executive talent acquisition. This discussion addressed how models of hiring could be replicated and scaled for the SES, as well as any hiring flexibilities that could be implemented:

  • Increase apprenticeship programs.
  • Foster a culture that supports innovation and risk taking.
  • Establish Chief Talent Officers in agencies, who would take a strategic view on identifying current and future talent needs.
  • Develop processes to scale innovations like GSA’s 18F program.

Incentives and accountability. Participants examined how to drive accountability for performance, set objectives and expectations, and measure performance:

  • Assess and develop talent by adapting commercial best practices.
  • Increase accountability through a consistent performance management system that includes employee feedback through means such as "360 reviews" of managers.
  • Develop high-quality performance plans with clear goals and outcomes tied to mission goals.
  • Evaluate team performance in achieving team goals.
  • Increase nonfinancial incentives, including rotational employment, recognition and sabbaticals.

Career/political interface. This discussion assessed ways to foster strong teams of SES and political appointees through effective training and onboarding strategies:

  • Onboard and train career and political leaders together.
  • Foster partnerships across the career and political ranks.
  • Identify critical information about key career/political relationships for transition teams.
  • Hire in blocks for positions by functional area (e.g., chief information officers, chief financial officers) across career and political ranks.

Enablers. Participants discussed implementation strategies and what tools and resources may be needed to be used to achieve the goals above:

  • Facilitate collaboration between the White House Presidential Personnel Office and the Office of Personnel Management.
  • Reform the HR process toward outcomes and away from compliance, with support for this coming from agency heads.
  • Incentivize chief human capital officers to be strategic change agents, rather than compliance managers.
  • Consider alternative compensation models.
  • Integrate governance of human capital across agencies.
  • Communicate compelling stories about how strong talent impacts mission achievement.

People are the foundation upon which the next administration will implement its agenda. Focusing on the leadership cadre—both political appointees and career executives—a new presidency can get off to a fast start and set up for success over the next four years. Incoming administrations face a complex set of urgent priorities, and focusing on senior leadership can seem like something that can be handled “later.” However, with an early focus on leadership (including during transition planning) the next president can greatly increase the capacity to implement policy effectively.

Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

(Image via alphaspirit/