Center Blog

Seven Keys to Building Executive Branch Teams


November 16, 2016

David Burd, Heidrick & Struggles
Marc Reiter, Partnership for Public Service



Our new president will be responsible for making 4,000 political appointments, including about 1,100 positions that require Senate confirmation. These Senate-confirmed jobs include Cabinet secretaries and their deputies, the heads of most agencies, the attorney general and a handful of positions within the Executive Office of the President, including the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Trade Representative. Appointing the “right” individuals for these top leadership jobs can greatly increase the chance that the executive branch will successfully implement the president’s policy goals.

The Center for Presidential Transition asked three top executive search firms to identify ways to improve a new administration’s team building process. The search firms and center staff also contacted current and previous appointees and distilled a few principles to keep in mind as the transition team identifies and selects talent to carry forth the new administration’s agenda:

  • It’s about building teams, not just filling roles. A number of current and former officeholders noted the importance of viewing appointments as building teams, where strengths in one role such as a deputy secretary or deputy administrator might compensate for skill gaps of the secretary or administrator. Thinking through the personalities and skills of the various members of the team and how they work together will be critical for the success of the organization.
  • Focus on executive leadership competencies and experience, not just policy making. There is more to public service than policy making. Many agencies are large and complex with massive budgets, human capital issues, technology modernization challenges and a need for operational and management discipline. Ensuring that appointees have a demonstrated track record of successful team and organizational leadership experience will increase the probability of success in policy making and achieving results while acting as efficient stewards of taxpayer dollars.
  • Recognize the fluidity of senior role—and even agencies. While there are constraints, there is some fluidity in staffing. Indeed, an incoming administration can seek to alter the bureaucracy rather than just respond to it. Examples abound. The National Economic Council was created during the Clinton administration to fulfill a campaign pledge to put the economy front-and-center. The role of the chief technology officer was created during the Obama administration to more effectively leverage technology and innovation. The U.S. Digital Service, positioned as a “startup at the White House” helped to drive more technical talent into government. The Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002 as a way to better coordinate security efforts of the federal government. Roles and offices across the government can be created or revised to support administration or department objectives.
  • Individuals can enhance the impact of the institution. Recognizing the power the right person can have to enhance the visibility and impact of a department. For example, Penny Pritzker’s tenure as secretary of the Department of Commerce is generally considered to have raised the profile of the department given her prior prominence in the business community and connection to the president. Think through the president’s priorities and how the right individual in the right office can help further those priorities.
  • The impact of tenure. While there inevitably will be turnover, longer tenure means greater continuity and an increased likelihood of following through on key presidential initiatives. Part of the interview and vetting process should include a question about commitment. Working to retain appointees longer at all levels of a departments could have positive impact.
  • Onboarding begins, not ends, on Day 1. For many senior roles, a lack of onboarding and effective orientation leaves political appointees spending their first weeks and months learning what they should be doing instead of hitting the ground running. Effective onboarding is critical.
  • Look to predecessors as a guide and encourage appointees to speak with previous officeholders. The list of predecessors included in the position descriptions developed by the Center for Presidential Transition should be one data point in identifying the kind of appointee that is selected. Once appointments have been made, it is a good practice for the nominees to reach out and speak with prior officeholders to identify pitfalls and strategies for success. Jeff Zients, for example, interviewed former National Economic Council chairs and it helped him prepare to lead the NEC.
  • BONUS: Administration priorities and the needs and goals of agencies should drive the type of appointees selected. Leadership roles can be successfully filled by individuals with quite different backgrounds. In such cases, thinking through the goals of an administration will be instructive in identifying the best match. For example, a president might foresee significant engagement with Congress by the director of the Office of Management and Budget, in which case a former member of Congress might be helpful in this role. This was the case with Leon Panetta, a former congressman who served as director of OMB from 1993 to 1994. In other instances, a technical expert might be more helpful, such as the subsequent Clinton choice of Alice Rivlin, who served from 1994-1996.

Participated in this discussion: Heidrick & Struggles, Egon Zehnder, and Russell Reynolds Associates


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