Leadership lessons for new political appointees
(Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
In the weeks and months ahead, hundreds of political appointees will be chosen for important leadership jobs in the new administration, and if confirmed by the Senate, will face a wide array of political, policy and management challenges.
During a panel discussion this fall at my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, two seasoned political appointees — Scott Gould, the former deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration, and Sean O’Keefe, who was administrator of NASA in the George W. Bush administration — offered insights into navigating the world of government leadership. Both are members of the Partnership's board of directors.
While the two experienced bumps and bruises from their time in government and are realists, they have remained idealistic about the importance and responsibilities of public service. They also cautioned that these jobs cannot be about ego or oneself.
“A lot of people who get political appointments mistakenly believe that the job is a reward – a means to advance their careers. No. This is about the mission – it's a chance to serve,” Gould said.
O’Keefe agreed. “A presidential appointment is not a reward. It is an assignment of public duty at the highest levels with the expressed confidence of the president – an often intimidating responsibility to uphold," he said.
O’Keefe warned that the challenges will be enormous and the critics plentiful, including Congress, the press, the inspectors general, the Governmental Accountability Office and even the person who sits next to you in the airplane when you tell them that you work for the government.
“You’re going to get lots of input. You’ve got to be aware of that. It should be expected, not resented. It’s the nature of these jobs and it is your responsibility to work through it,” he said.
O’Keefe also pointed out that appointees must be aware that the start of the new administration will be chaotic. “It’s just an overwhelming array of decisions and issues that gets served up," he said, and unless you have a process in place for managing and for making decisions, that will “basically leave you subjected to whatever is the latest and newest issue or whoever talks the loudest.”
“And that’s hardly a recipe for coming up with any sort of prioritization,” O’Keefe said.
Gould said establishing and committing to a decision-making process at the start is crucial when it comes to managing day-to-day issues, long-term plans and the inevitable crises.
“These types of decisions are made differently and often with different players at the table,” he said. “Once the bullets start flying, you need to have a plan in place to know how to behave and react.”
O’Keefe added that in crisis situations, you need to “lay out a path with the recognition that there are limits of what you know.”
“You need to build in enough opportunities to be responsive in the immediate term and to adjust as more information becomes available,” O’Keefe said. In addition, he said leaders should be as precise as possible regarding the appropriate remedies, be prepared for the critics and the unexpected way people will behave.
In the broader context, both men emphasized the importance of building strong leadership teams that include both political appointees and career executives, and ensuring that there are diverse perspectives at the table.
Gould said government departments and agencies are staff driven, with success depending on “trusting and delegating to your career team, involving them and reaching deep into the organization to get the expertise to bring it forward, providing credit when credit is due.”
“Giving people a way to voice their concerns early and deep in the process will help you end up getting better quality decisions,” Gould said. “You need to bring warring parties in bureaucracy into the open, let them make their strongest arguments for and against, and then make the decision with all the facts in front of you.”
O’Keefe said he too feels strongly that leaders must consider “all of the various options, opposing views and the different approaches.”
“Once the decision is made, it is your responsibility as a leader to articulate the references, reservations and full understanding of the consequence of a decision,” O’Keefe said. “While there will continue to be concerns and objections going forward, at least you understand where they are coming from.”
The issues cited by Gould and O’Keefe are just a few of the items that political appointees need to be aware of when coming into government. Other matters include dealing with Congress, interactions with the White House, common ethics violations, and understanding the intricacies of the federal hiring, technology and acquisition processes.
While the policy and management challenges will be significant, the hours long and the monetary rewards small compared to the private sector, most former political appointees I have talked with look back at their government service as among their best professional experiences, and well worth the trials and tribulations.
If you have any experiences, advice or comments, please share your thoughts below or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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