Advice for new appointees in President Obama’s second term

November 15, 2012

As President Obama prepares for a second term, it is a certainty that there will be turnover in his Cabinet and among political appointees across all the departments and agencies.

The Clinton administration had about a 40-percent turnover while the Bush administration lost about 65 percent of its top leadership during the second term. These important leadership positions will be occupied by some individuals with experience in government, but also by many who have little knowledge of how to operate in the unique federal environment or who have no history of managing large organizations.

Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense policy, and Margaret Spellings, a former secretary of education, have written an article, “The First 100 Days in Government,” that includes valuable tips on how leaders can get things done in government.

“First impressions do matter, and you will be in the spotlight the moment you walk through the door,” the two former federal officials said. “Your first months in office will establish your credibility and reputation for getting things done — or not.”

While there is no guaranteed recipe for success, here are some insights from Flournoy and Spellings to help newly appointed leaders find their way.


(Jesse Lefkowitz for The Washington Post)
Know yourself and prepare.

As soon as you are tapped for a position, take stock of your strengths, weaknesses and leadership style. Be thoughtful about how you intend to fulfill this new role and what you will need to be successful. Begin to develop a sense of what you want to accomplish. In addition, identify a few trusted advisers who will tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear, and who will keep you from living in “the bubble.”

Know your organization.

Once in office, take time to understand the mission, roles, work and people in your organization and what makes it tick. It’s important to engage not only your direct reports but also frontline staff. Ask hard questions and identify trusted information sources at various levels of the organization. Understand your resources and how they are allocated and also be aware of important cycles such as the budget process and the congressional calendar.

Understand your ecosystem.

Map your larger “ecosystem” to identify who your customer is as well as your most important external stakeholders, such as White House staff, the Office of Management and Budget, counterparts in other agencies and key members of Congress or their staff. Reach out to them early to get an “outside-in view” of your organization as well as their candid assessment of the organization and its performance. Over time, invest in building these relationships to provide you with valuable feedback and to get things done.

“It's a team sport!”

Building a strong, cohesive and effective leadership team is your highest priority. As a new appointee, you may find yourself a relative latecomer “joining the party” and inherit a team you did not choose, so it’s important that you spend time getting to know your team and assessing whether you need to make any changes. As your leadership team takes shape, be clear about how you see their roles and responsibilities; how decisions will be made; how you expect them to support you and to work together; and how they can expect you to hold them accountable. Then empower them to the maximum extent possible. It is also critical to include senior career civil servants in your leadership circle. Their institutional knowledge and experience will benefit you enormously, and by building trust and engaging your agency’s career employees, you will also signal to the workforce at large that they are “inside the tent” and part of your team.  

Set your agenda and drive it forward.

Start working with your leadership team to immediately to define your mission and objectives, set priorities and develop an initial agenda. Keep a running list of potential quick wins as well as the things you want to change over time. If something small can be fixed right away, do it. Early, visible improvements will send a positive signal and build your credibility.

Create a positive organizational culture.

Be explicit about your values and management style—how you will treat others, how you want them to treat you and how you expect them to treat each other.  Some best practices to consider: Praise in public, criticize in private. Decide early how you are going to behave on the worst of days, and then try your hardest not to behave any worse.

Communicate, communicate … and then communicate again.

As a new leader, it is virtually impossible to communicate too much with your organization. Develop a compelling narrative of where you want to take the organization and how you plan to engage them on the journey. Tell the story again and again in forums such as meetings, internal messages or your blog.

Flournoy and Spelling, who are currently senior advisers at the Boston Consulting Group, said there are many other issues to keep in mind, but that the most important advice they can offer is for political leaders to maintain their integrity. “Every political appointee pledges an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Be true to that oath and, at the most fundamental level, you can't go wrong,” they write.

Current and former political appointees, what advice do you have for newly appointed leaders in their first 100 days in government? And career civil servants, how can these new leaders best succeed within your agencies? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox writes the Federal Coach blog for the Washington Post and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

More from On Leadership:

Obama’s second term: The power of a new team

For Obama, where has Lincoln gone?

What makes an excellent president

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