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How New Agency Leaders Can Get Off to a Successful Start

Whether you’re a new appointee or a career executive starting a new assignment, take some advice from your predecessors.

Change is coming. New political appointees are arriving almost daily and career executives are being assigned to new positions. So where should leaders begin when they arrive at a new organization? We had the unique opportunity to ask 65 Obama administration appointees this question. There was clear agreement that new executives should do the following:

  • Deal with immediate problems
  • Assess the organization
  • Decide where to focus your attention

Deal with Immediate Problems 

New executives are likely to face immediate fires, unfinished business from their predecessors, and priorities already set by the White House. And by “immediate,” we mean before you’ve had time to arrange your office furniture. Erica Groshen, former commissioner at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, recalled, “My first 24 hours were my hardest. I had to choose to eliminate three programs due to a sequestration. I discussed with the staff why it made sense to cut these three programs. I had to get up to speed quickly and fully understand the reasoning behind this plan before signing my name to it,” she said. “No day since then has been so hard.” 

During the Obama administration, new executives found that one of their major priorities was implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Flash forward to 2021 and new executives will face the challenge of implementing the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan. Jonathan Adelstein, former administrator at the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service, said, “By the time I (arrived), much of the work on setting up the Recovery Act’s Broadband Initiatives Program had been completed with oversight from the secretary’s office and the White House … So I didn’t have a role in the design of the first round of the program. I had to work with what I found. I gave a speech to the agency within a week of my arrival [and] I let the staff know that I supported their mission.” 

Executives also frequently arrive after a mandate has been handed down by the Office of Management and Budget (or another White House unit) to undertake a specific set of activities.   The late Brad Huther recalled his arrival at the Housing and Urban Development Department as Chief Financial Officer, “Before I arrived, OMB had mandated the drastic move that HUD go to shared services. We had to redirect everything to shared services. It was a whole new process and we were the first cabinet department to do it … We had to build political support for this change within the department and had to report to OMB once a week on our progress.”

Assess the Organization 

Executives face their first management challenge when they arrive at their new organization. They must decide how quickly they want to move on assessing their organization. David Kappos, former director of the Patent and Trademark Office, wanted to meet quickly with his staff so that each could begin to assess one another: “I wanted to hit the ground running, but I didn’t want to jump out of the chopper shooting.” 

Nearly all of the executives interviewed wisely avoided the tendency to “jump out of the chopper shooting.” David Stevens, former commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, described his deliberate pace: “I spent my first days at FHA assessing the organization. I would go out into the field and talk with our staff. We held large staff meetings and an offsite planning retreat. I wanted to better understand the major issues facing the department. I focused on what I thought I could accomplish and what would make a real difference.” 

During his initial assessment, Stevens said, “It became obvious to me that we needed to better manage risk. We needed a risk office and a chief risk officer. I felt FHA needed to go outside of the organization to recruit some top-notch deputy assistant secretaries. We needed to recruit people with experience in credit risk, credit policy, and lending.” Stevens concluded that reorganization was not needed so he put his efforts into assessing the talent already in the organization.

Several of the executives interviewed launched initiatives to examine a specific set of activities within the organization. Often these reviews led to personnel changes. John Thompson, former director of the Census Bureau, recalled, “When I got here, Census staff were all over the map about how to proceed in 2020 … I needed to get the staff to understand a new way to manage the census. We could not simply use our existing methodology.” So he launched a “rocket team” to evaluate the options and come up with a new approach. “It took six months. In that time, I also put in a new leadership team for the Decennial Census.” 

Assessments are especially crucial when an executive arrives to find the agency in a firestorm of negative publicity. David Strickland, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found himself in that situation when he arrived in the midst of furor over a massive Toyota automobile recall. “When I got here, there had already been a significant amount of work in progress on Toyota,” Strickland said. “My first task was to determine whether NHTSA was broken. Some people were saying that we had a broken culture here. I decided that they were wrong and that NHTSA was not broken. That decision was a risk I had to take, but I believed it. It turns out that I was right. The final analysis showed that NHTSA had done a fantastic job on the Toyota recall.” 

Decide Where and How to Focus 

Margaret Hamburg, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, was advised by several former commissioners to just pick out a couple of issues and focus on those items. “Instead,” Hamburg recalled, “I found that I had to focus on positioning FDA for the future. I wanted it to be as effective as it could be. This required a whole new level of engagement with the agency. I wanted to strengthen the quality of the work done here. The agency needed an advocate for itself. There was no beginning and end to the initiative of improving the agency. I felt that if we didn’t address this issue, we would be losing critical ground. We needed to forge stronger working relationships with many groups.” 

David Kappos reached a similar conclusion at PTO. He launched an aggressive campaign on multiple fronts: “The job of leadership is to work on all the challenges. You need to do it all. There is no one single thing that you have to do; you have to do a hundred things. Change is the sum of a lot of little things. I don’t believe there is a magic bullet or a single fix. I believe it is about making day-by-day changes and continuously working toward improvement. I believe philosophically that you are never done. Change goes on forever.” 

David Stevens took a different approach. Because of the financial crisis confronting the nation and HUD when he arrived at FHA, Stevens adopted a management strategy to focus on just a few major issues. “I’ve learned to just focus on two or three issues and give those my full attention,” says Stevens. “That meant I gave other issues much less attention. On other issues, I just needed to know enough to give people my go-ahead to keep them going. You really have a short time here and you have so much to get done, you have to focus on just a few things. I had to focus on a couple of things and dig in to get them done.” 

Mark Rosekind, another former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, described a similar experience: “The intensity and tempo are never-ending … There was one staff meeting early on where a lot of new ideas were developed and subsequent assignments were handed out. One staff member said after the meeting, ‘Can we stop adding more to-dos to our agenda?’” 

Arriving at a new agency is indeed a challenge. But take it from those who have been there before: Dealing with immediate problems, assessing the organization, and deciding on how to focus your attention are good places to start.   

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. Paul R. Lawrence is the former Under Secretary for Benefits, Department of Veteran Affairs. This article is adapted from their book Succeeding as a Political Executive: 50 Insights from Experience. Their email addresses: mark.abramson@comcast.net and lawrencepaul@cox.net.