Hard-Earned Cabinet Wisdom

By Dan Glickman
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, March 2, 2009; 12:00 AM

With the nation facing unprecedented economic challenges, reality is likely accelerating a rite of passage familiar to virtually every former Cabinet member, that moment when unanticipated circumstances beg the timeless question posed by Robert Redford in the 1972 film classic The Candidate: 'What do we do now?'

At a time when all Americans, regardless of politics, should want to see the Obama administration succeed, let me offer some practical lessons of experience to his newly formed Cabinet, gleaned from past successes and ample helpings of humble pie while serving as Agriculture Secretary during the Clinton administration.

One of the biggest early shocks to the system for a new Cabinet member comes with the full realization of the sheer scale of the organization you now run. You'll inherit an existing workforce, whose average tenure is 17 years, and try to lead them with a team of political appointees, who typically stick around for about 24 months.

You might also notice that the job you have isn't exactly the one you thought you signed up for. At Commerce, in addition to stoking the business prospects of private enterprise, you may at times find yourself elbow-deep in fish. Who knew the department oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency? At Agriculture, you may think you're in charge of food safety, only to learn that you share this role with 13 other agencies. If it's tainted hamburgers, you're on deck. But peanut butter's another story -- one belonging to the Food & Drug Administration.

A few additional tips:

Listen to your elders: As a cabinet member, few can truly understand the complex challenges you face. Open the lines of communications to your predecessors. Regardless of party affiliation, each has something unique to offer, even if you don't always take their advice.

Respect the 'lifers': Build immediate bridges to career staff. Identify your home-grown stars and turn to them routinely for counsel. They may not always see eye-to-eye with your political advisors, but a genuine back-and-forth can help avoid some painful 'see I told you so's.'

Ethics mandate: Your new boss is big on ethics and transparency. Take the time to visit your ethics officer. Even if you're running your agency honorably, failure to understand federal guidelines is an easy way to find yourself in hot water.

Measure success: Know early on what you want to achieve, and take a lesson from the best of corporate America: As you set goals, also set meaningful benchmarks that offer real-time, no-bull visibility into how you're doing.

Hit the road: More than 80 percent of federal employees work outside Washington. Do yours understand what the Obama Administration wants to achieve? Do they have what they need to succeed? Find out for yourself.

Mulch the turf: Most goals worth achieving require working across agency and even departmental lines. Turf can be a near-paralyzing problem in government. Don't let egos and territory get in the way of real progress. Lead by example.

Precisely who is calling from the White House? Nothing will get your aides jumping higher than a request from 'the White House.' If the matter is not of an obvious urgent nature, before you let it throw you off track, ask a simple follow-up question: Who is the White House? A call from the President or a top aide is one thing. The intern manning the copy machine (while providing a valuable service) is another.

TLC for OMB: The Office of Management and Budget is tasked with ensuring Federal agencies realize the President's agenda. There's no over-stating what a powerful ally -- or adversary -- they can be to your department. Build a bridge early on. Make sure they know what you want to achieve, what it will take to get there and how it serves the President's vision.

Climb the Hill: The folks at the other end of Constitution Avenue will also play a pivotal role in your success or failure. Meet with the Chairs and Ranking Members of your relevant committees, including appropriations, and make sure you have genuine champions in the legislative branch. When adversity comes -- and it will -- you'll need every one of them.

Don't Forget to Laugh: Almost invariably those who succeed in this town have a good sense of humor. Don't lose the ability to laugh -- even at yourself. Your success depends on the collective effort of many people. If you're liked and you treat people well, you'll get more done.

This is no roadmap to peace in the Middle East or silver bullet for our economy, but it might just make a small contribution to getting there. And, oh yes, if you're asked to sit out the next State of the Union, don't take it personally. Many of us have been there before, too. It might not be exactly what you expected for the big night, but boy will you have a story to tell.

Dan Glickman is a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and current Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America.

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