Governance is the set of processes that a leadership team uses to monitor its activities, make or communicate decisions and to evaluate whether it is achieving its objectives. Over time, most agencies have created standardized procedures governing how and when component heads meet to make decisions or stay connected on priorities. In some agencies, these structures last across administrations. In others, they change depending on new leadership preferences. For new appointees, an effective tenure starts with learning, maintaining and adapting governance practices that align with needs and styles of the agency’s leadership.
Learn the existing processes your agency uses to make decisions and adjust as necessary to match new leadership preferences
- Leaders should decide the purpose and value of meetings and forums and be deliberate about who should participate. All leaders we interviewed agreed that it is critical to have a clear understanding of who should be involved in discussions and how decisions get made and communicated. In some cases, new leaders were able to continue the methods that preceded them. In others, officials felt it was necessary to introduce new forums, adjust meeting cadences, or create new methods for sharing information to conform to new management styles—although they cautioned that substantial changes can be jarring for agency staff.
One senior leader said, “I convene our principals regularly to talk about things that they need to hear and then things that I need to hear. But prior to my getting here, that wasn’t happening…There was no preexisting executive committee that was evergreen, so we had to build that from scratch.”
Another said, “It took us a while…to nail the right cadence of oversight meetings by the deputy and the secretary and the enterprise…I think we’ve landed now…but it took us a couple of months to stumble into that structure…One piece [of advice is] to get to the institutional management piece quickly.”
- Create new, temporary meeting cadences when major priorities involve many offices and complexity. One appointee talked about a managing a major initiative immediately upon taking office and organizing the team to work together. “We had a very tight turn on delivering, so we had to quickly jump in to standing up governance processes…[We tried] to establish a regular battle rhythm—a regular set of meetings at the relevant senior leader levels—in a coherent way that linked the secretary and deputy’s office. We worked on…an approach with integrated senior advisors, a set of priorities and a governance structure in which the deputy secretary served to tee up and support the secretary’s priorities rather than having essentially two principals with separate spheres of influence.”
- Learn the executive secretary processes that determine how briefing materials, decision memoranda and other official paperwork move through review and finalization. While new appointees might see these processes as bureaucratic, they are an important way of communicating your best work to the secretary and other leaders. Investing your time to make your submissions high quality will be evident and reflect well on you across the agency.
- Ask front offices to adapt templates and deadlines to provide leadership with the best information on the most convenient timeline to review. “My priority as chief of staff… was to put in [place] really strong governance that supported what we were trying to get done… Putting in place our own decision-making structures, our communication processes with the department, our executive secretary rules for paper flow and procedures—that was a big first two, three weeks priority for us,” the official explained. “It evolved too, which I think is natural for any department.”
Prioritize how agency leaders dedicate their time
- Decide which issues your office will or will not oversee. In some instances, officials described the need to determine priorities with little to no guidance from the White House. As one chief of staff explained, you must decide how much you expect to manage the organization versus how much you expect to manage the principal.
Another chief of staff advised, “You just have to accept [that you] cannot fix all of the things in the building.” Leaders must have a concrete set of priorities, milestones and initiatives to track over time.
- Decide how to balance the priorities of dealing with day-to-day operations of any agency—including staffing and human resources concerns—with long-term vision and goals. The regular operations of any agency can consume all of your time and leaders must make sure they prioritize some staff to thinking big picture, or else such larger goals cannot be accomplished. As one chief of staff shared, “You have to be ruthless on that kind of prioritization in order to make progress in the face of the bureaucracy.”
Another appointee encouraged others to use the structure of their teams to address both areas of responsibility. “You need the team that is dealing with the day to day, dealing with the red flags and really getting themselves in that world. But you need the team that is thinking about the vision and communicating that. And these two teams have to talk because this feeds that, and this sort of pushes and pulls that.”