Building Leadership Strength for the Next Administration

Transition roadmap leverages the talent of top executives.

In 2017, for the first time in eight years, a new president will be sworn into office. Regardless of which party wins, a new set of political appointees will serve as executive leaders across the government. The decisions that the new administration makes about who to appoint — which starts during the transition process — will set a path forward for the administration. Likewise, early decisions about how these political leaders interact with senior career executives will have a profound effect on the ability of the president to implement policy goals, and overcome execution and operational challenges that can cost the administration in terms of time, resources and public standing.

These and related challenges are the subject of “Managing the Government’s Executive Talent," a new whitepaper by Doug Brook and Maureen Hartney. The whitepaper, which provides actionable recommendations for transition teams and the next administration, is part of a joint effort by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service to develop a Management Roadmap for the next administration. The Management Roadmap is part of a larger Ready to Govern initiative being led by the Partnership.

A number of the recommendations in the whitepaper stem from a roundtable discussion in May with current and former career and political government leaders from varied backgrounds and political affiliations. While these leaders came with diverse perspectives, there was wide agreement on the critical impact that executive talent has on the effectiveness of the administration — and consequently on political fortunes throughout a president’s term in office.

Yet transition teams and new administrations seldom make explicit links from priority goals and political appointments with the importance of outstanding management. By deliberately identifying the skills needed for particular appointee positions, fostering management excellence across the career government leadership, and developing a robust approach for managing political and career executive talent the next administration can maximize opportunities and minimize risk.

The whitepaper pulls from government and industry insights and best practices and focuses the recommendations on how to achieve results in the complex federal environment. The whitepaper brings forward insights from the May roundtable, including the need to effectively manage the interface between political and career executives, strengthen the Senior Executive Service, align accountability and incentives for political and career executives, and innovate recruiting and training executive leaders. 

The authors also build on these insights and related research to present a new framework for the next administration to leverage the talent of top political and career executives. Intriguingly, they suggest the creation of an Executive Management Corps, composed of top political and career executives who manage large operations within their agencies. They also urge the new administration to come into office with a clear expectation that departments and agencies will create Joint Executive Management Teams as their approach to operating. The teams would comprise political and career executives focused on their agency’s mission, with common performance management expectations.

Underpinning this framework and the overall recommendations from the roundtable are several key themes about the management of executive talent:

Transition teams must identify roles based upon the type of skills needed — and then make appointment selections accordingly. Political considerations will, of course, be part of the equation, but leading large operations also requires managerial expertise.

All leaders are part of a team. The best leaders create strong leadership teams that bring together complementary skills, such that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Career senior executive service leaders have a tremendous impact. Administrations that work to quickly establish strong working relationships between political and career executives will be more successful.

Achieving organizational objectives starts with clarity about the outcome, and then aligns leaders through clear performance measures and incentives. Absent clear objectives and aligned incentives, there may be lots of motion but little progress.

Among the many decisions that transitions teams and a new administrations will grapple with, executive talent management can be overlooked as a key priority. Yet the decisions about people are among the most consequential for the trajectory of the administration. We hope that this whitepaper spurs additional discussion about the importance of focusing on executive talent during transition planning and in the earliest days of the next administration.

Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Alan Howze, a fellow at the IBM Center, is a senior adviser and project manager for the Management Roadmap initiative.