Advice for dealing with new political appointees in your agency

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

With the start of President Obama’s second term, many political appointees have already departed or soon will be leaving — and their replacements slowly but surely will be arriving to take over key management positions.

This is always an unsettling time for career executives who must manage operations during the hiatus, and then adjust to any changes that inevitably will take place. However, it is also an opportunity for you to form a productive working relationship with the new political appointees. 

So how does one not only survive but thrive during a transition in political leadership?

My colleague, John Palguta, a 34-year veteran of the federal government, spent years watching the transition process unfold under a variety of administrations. Recently he shared his list of transition dos and don’ts for career leaders.

To ensure a positive and productive start, here are some of the pitfalls to avoid:

· Don’t begin your first conversation with a new appointee by preemptively telling the individual what needs to be done immediately.

· Avoid responding to new ideas with, “That’s not going to work because…” Even if the ideas have some flaws, such as being in conflict with existing rules, think about alternatives you might suggest. 

· Resist the temptation to criticize your agency’s former political team or to list all the terrible things the new appointee’s predecessor did. You’ll only make them wonder what you might say about them when they leave.

· Don’t hide problems. Bad news doesn’t get better with age, and being upfront about problems will sting less than if you wait until the problem grows or becomes public.

· Curb any thoughts about being a yes man or yes woman. For example, don’t agree to do something if you know that you don’t have the ability to follow through.

· If you simply cannot or will not accept changes a new appointee may legitimately wish to make, it may be time to consider a job change. 

What can you do to help yourself, your new political boss and your agency succeed? Here are some of the affirmative steps that you can take:

· Learn all you can about any new priorities and goals that your new boss may have for the organization. Some online research before the appointee even arrives can be helpful.

· Be open to and ready for change; that’s what it’s about.

· Anticipate questions and have constructive answers ready. Hint: Simply telling a new appointee that “we’ve always done it that way” is not a constructive answer.

· Develop suggestions on how to best address any external criticisms. For example, if the organization has been publicly criticized for unresponsiveness, be ready with viable recommendations for improvement.

· Assume the best about the new team until and unless proven wrong.

· Focus on the end result — the job the organization is there to do for the American public. Work backward from that objective and figure out the best way to get there together.

For career senior executives, the law provides for a 120-day moratorium on involuntary reassignments after the appointment of a new agency head or the appointment of a new direct supervisor who is a political appointee. Palguta recommends that career executives use this honeymoon period not only to get to know the new appointees, but also to make sure they have a chance to see that you are a valuable member of their team.

Federal leaders, how are you dealing with the arrival of new political appointees? What advice do you have for how career executives can handle these transitions? Share your experiences in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org .

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Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.

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