Preparing for the Transition: What Appointees Want

Five ways career employees can please their new bosses, from the perspective of a 31-year public servant.

This article has been updated.

This four-part series on preparing for the presidential transition is the result of surveys and interviews conducted by Alan Balutis, a former federal executive with more than 30 years of government experience. Balutis, who served as the Commerce Department's first chief information officer, is now a senior and distinguished fellow in U.S. public sector for Cisco Systems Inc. He also served as a member of the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform team for the Obama-Biden transition team in 2008-09.

The series ends this week with advice for career professionals from a 31-year veteran of government service, who asked to remain anonymous. This source served two stints as a political appointee, one for a Democratic president and the other for a Republican.

While career employees likely are familiar with the usual transition preparations, such as writing briefing papers and books, counseling staff members, and preparing a possible exit strategy in case the new boss is intolerable, they can take other steps.

1. Ask some hard questions about the programs you manage, such as "Why do we do it that way?" If the answer is, "Because we always have," think again. You need a better answer than that for a new appointee.

2. Try to anticipate the questions appointees might ask and have good answers ready. Good answers can and sometimes should include this type of statement: "That's the way the last administration wanted it done, but here's why I think there's a better, more effective approach." But don't say that just to dump on the previous administration and get in good with the new one. If the incoming appointees are any good, they'll despise you for that.

3. Do your homework. Review all recent criticisms of your program and organization, including outside evaluations, opposition party railings, and Government Accountability Office and Office of Management and Budget findings. Valid or not, you need to know the complaints, because your appointee has the right to expect thoughtful, professional assessments and recommendations from you. Be in a position to deliver.

4. Relax a little. This may be the most important advice. You can't control who is elected or who is appointed so don't spend too much time playing what-if games. If you can do this -- and an awful lot of Senior Executive Service members will have trouble -- you'll feel better. In the end, you also will perform better and be a more pleasant colleague and family member.

5. Always remember, your family members still matter more than almost anything that can happen at work, so don't neglect them by obsessing over what is going to happen in the office.