Every day seems to bring a head-spinning new story of turnover among the White House senior team. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Top economic adviser Gary Cohn. Communications director Hope Hicks. Staff secretary Rob Porter. Deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. New stories suggest the fates of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are in question.
Those who track top executive branch moves say the dizzying number of changes really is different than past administrations. Turnover among the most senior staff members within the Executive Office of the President was 34 percent last year, according to an analysis by Brookings Institution fellow Kathryn Dunn Tenpas — double the churn of Ronald Reagan’s first year and more than triple the rate of Obama’s. That figure has grown to 43 percent this year, not including Cabinet secretary changes, and Tenpas said there has been a change in seven of the top 12 staff positions since inauguration day. "In this administration the problems are exacerbated," she said.
Yet Trump is not a conventional president, and he campaigned on his business experience. So it seems only fair to compare the amount of churn in his White House to senior teams in the private sector — and to examine the consequences management experts say can imperil teams when the revolving door spins too fast.
Though there isn't a lot of data about turnover on top executive teams in corporate America, the figures that are available suggest the numbers aren’t even close. One 2014 study of executive teams in S&P 1500 companies put the average turnover at 11 percent. A Harvard Business Review article from 2004 put the average figure at only about 8 percent. Donald Hambrick, a professor at Penn State University's business school who has studied executive team dynamics for years, says he’d estimate that typical senior team turnover is about 15 to 20 percent a year.
“I really can’t construct an argument why it would be more beneficial” to have as much turnover as Trump’s White House has had, he said. “Whether it’s voluntary or involuntary, there’s some kind of mismatch. It’s a sign that Trump is not very good at picking people — or sees it as a random draw of how loyal or agreeable people are.”
No organization wants high turnover — it’s costly, distracting and requires time to get new people up to speed. But management experts say turnover at the executive level is particularly damaging.
“At the mid-level and lower levels, things can be more programmed — there can be more rules and rulebooks about how to handle tasks," Hambrick said. "But for executives, there’s a level of abstraction, the work is more implicit, and the interpersonal trust and relationships are all the more crucial.”
James Guthrie, a professor at the University of Kansas’s business school, studied the effect of executive turnover and found that too much turnover leads to subsequently worse financial performance. "If the White House was a company where you could measure [return on assets] and stock price, you’d start to see the same effects,” he said. “When teams have this level of turnover, they don’t work effectively. It’s really not a good sign."
It’s also particularly important for executive teams to project a sense of calm about the organization’s stability in order to lead the rank-and-file.
“The one thing you don’t want is people around you panicked, and thinking this process is unpredictable,” said Peter Cappelli, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “The real problem is the uncertainty of it."
Another problem with too much executive turnover is that it tends to invite even more churn, whereas the departure of front-line workers typically doesn't.
"Just as an example, you've got to figure when Tillerson goes, three to five senior people are going to go as well -- his people," Hambrick said. "It’s a cascade of chaos into the upper middle ranks. It creates and adds to the trauma."
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to an email regarding White House turnover and its consequences. But in remarks made last Wednesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “this is an intense place, as is every White House, and it’s not abnormal that you would have people come and go.” Asked by a reporter whether the turnover was an indication of chaos, Sanders cited things such as the strength of the economy and a weakened ISIS and said it “sounds like a very functioning place of business to me.”
Trump tweeted March 6 that the "Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House. Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!"
But experts who study public service governance say the clock is ticking for the Trump White House, as it is with any presidential administration. “You are the most influential you’re ever going to be on inauguration day,” said Paul Light, a professor at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service.
As that influence declines, midterms come up and the distraction of another election begins, administrations should want people with more experience in the job — not less. “It’s like a game — it has a fixed amount of time, and you don’t want to make decisions that are going to undermine that,” Light said.
With so much turnover, another trend Trump seems to be speeding up, management experts said, is the move toward a like-minded team. After unceremoniously firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump said "I’m really at a point where we’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want."
That comment befuddled some management experts, who noted that a president starts from scratch in getting to pick his senior team and Cabinet members, unlike CEOs who inherit a senior team they must either live with or fire. "In theory, they get to put together the team they want," Guthrie said of presidents, yet Trump has had "constant fluctuation" among his team.
Hambrick put it this way: "None of these people were thrust upon him. He picked these people."
While research has shown that executive teams tend to see things more similarly over time, the frequent changes in Trump's White House may be accelerating that trend toward groupthink that haunts any leadership team.
"The tendency to have cognitive lock-in and inertia increases over a CEO's tenure," Hambrick said. "Over time a senior team becomes like an old married couple." But in Trump's case, he said, "he seems intent on attaining like-mindedness at the outset."