Michael O. Leavitt has served as governor of Utah, head of the Environmental Protection Agency and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2012, Leavitt headed the transition team for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and this experience is documented in the newly released book, Romney Readiness Project 2012: Retrospective and Lessons Learned. The Romney Readiness Project was the first transition organization to operate under the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010.

Michael Leavitt with Mitt Romney (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images) Michael Leavitt with Mitt Romney (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Leavitt speaks here about Washington politics, leadership and his experiences preparing for a possible Romney administration in an interview with Tom Fox. A guest writer for On Leadership, Fox is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Q. How can Washington overcome gridlock and the divide between the political parties?

A. Effective government has to be viewed as a collaborative exercise, not simply as an ideological exercise. When people get down to problem solving, they create a more effective government and the people are better served.

How do you begin that conversation?

Democracies tend to respond to crisis, and there's a lot of time in between that’s wasted. The first rule is to build on the things that you agree on, and don't let the things you disagree on dominate the agenda. Even with the areas of great political divide, there are a common set of ideas that can be agreed on, but the political process puts these off. When you get to the point that something has to be done, people always go to the common-sense thing. During periods when agreement is not imperative or necessary, they start from the outside and work in.

What advice do you have to help agency leaders be more effective?

People often misjudged the ripeness of problems. Understanding when a problem is ripe to be solved is an important judgment.  Looking at the portraits of past secretaries of HHS reminded me how limited one's tenure as a Cabinet officer is.  If you're going to get something done, you have to focus intensely on the things that are most important and the things that are achievable. When I was secretary, I gave everyone on my senior leadership team a countdown clock to remind them that in these precious moments, we are in a position to have an influence on the good of the country.

What qualities should the leader of a presidential transition team possess?

There are a handful of qualities and circumstances that prepare a person to lead a presidential transition. The individual must have a personal relationship with the candidate built on mutual respect, confidence and trust, along with a trusted relationship with the campaign leadership. It’s important to have a deep knowledge and comfort with the ideology of the presidential candidate as well as personal knowledge and experience working in Washington with the federal government. Finally, a transition leader needs to have executive leadership skills and experience building complex organizations. It’s also best if the transition leader is not a job seeker.

What were the top lessons that you learned from your transition planning efforts?

Start early. Focus on delivering the commitment your candidate made in the election. Ask the best people to help—they will. Maintain confidentiality. If the media is writing about the transition, it is a distraction to the campaign.

The Romney readiness project was one of the earliest efforts to prepare for a presidential transition. Why is early and comprehensive transition planning a good idea?

We were extraordinarily well prepared, but our ability to execute the plan was never tested. The experience made clear to me that one cannot prepare a transition of power in the 77 days between the election and inauguration day. We started preparing in May 2012 and worked virtually around the clock. I spent a lot of time studying past transitions and came to the conclusion that those who transitioned well have a real shot at being successful. Those who transition poorly rarely overcome their slow start.

Where did you focus most of your energy?

We defined four basic tasks. First was the development of a 200-day plan to implement Mitt Romney’s campaign commitments, including the early sketch of a federal budget. Second was the selection of a core team quickly. This included preparations to select the Cabinet, White House staff and other critical positions. Third, we developed collaborative relationships with members of Congress so we could build coalitions required to get things done. Lastly, we spent a great deal of energy developing support mechanisms to operate the office of the president-elect, such as communications, scheduling, et cetera. As I indicated, we made a clear decision to focus on Mitt Romney’s campaign commitments and not attempt engaging in a general critique of government. We went narrow and deep instead of wide and shallow.

What specifically did you do to organize the team around going deep?

We defined what I called the general instructions. It was a short document that summarized the key parts of Mitt Romney's commitments. We organized a series of charters assigning various teams specific tasks for each department. We had to have the ability to work collaboratively across the lines of federal government to accomplish these tasks. As an example, one of the key points was to authorize the Keystone Pipeline, which would require actions from the departments of Commerce, Energy, Interior, State and Treasury and the Environmental Protection Agency. We needed to work collaboratively across the lines of federal government to accomplish that. Those tasks were written into the charters of every one of those organizations.

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