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February 2016
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The Public Manager

Advice for the Transition: Build Executive Leadership Teams

To accelerate the achievement of the president's priorities and to reduce the risk of operational failures, presidential transition teams and the next White House must make managing executive talent a priority.

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Presidential transitions must focus early on recruiting and deploying executive talent to advance the policy agenda of the president-elect. The most critical groups to consider are the small subsets of those Senate-confirmed presidential appointees (PAS), noncareer Senior Executive Service (SES) appointees, and career SES members. These positions involve either senior leadership and management or functional areas, such as finance, human resources, information technology, and procurement. We term these subsets of managers, respectively, the "Political Executive Corps" and the "Senior Career Executive Corps."

A new report for the Partnership for Public Service and the IBM Center for the Business of Government, Managing the Government's Executive Talent, asserts that the new administration must assemble the talent required to meet the challenges of managing the federal government by recruiting and retaining political and career executives with strong management capabilities and by organizing these managers into effective senior leadership teams within the departments and agencies of government.

Appointees and Senior Career Executives Need Management Capability

Political appointees come from various backgrounds, and policy and political considerations are legitimate in the selection of individuals to serve in presidentially appointed positions. But for appointments into the Political Executive Corps, an additional qualification is required: management capability.

Similarly, SES managers also can have varying degrees of management experience. For managerial positions within the government's executive leadership team, the administration must identify and select senior executives with significant experience and capability.

Build Senior Leadership Teams

Neither political appointees nor career executives singularly possesses the broad policy, political, programmatic, and organizational knowledge necessary to manage their agencies. Rather, these two groups must work together and forge positive working relationships.

What's more, most individual senior leaders do not possess sufficient time or enough relevant information to make all of the decisions necessary in a rapidly changing, complex organization. The complexity of the job held by the senior-most leader would challenge anyone's breadth of ability. Add the short response times often required, and it becomes clear that leadership needs to be more evenly shared across organizations.

The essential building block for an effective talent management strategy is the creation of enterprise-focused agency leadership teams consisting of senior leaders from both the Political Executive Corps and the Senior Career Executive Corps. The earlier these positive relationships between political appointees and senior SES members are established, the better for the long-term management of the agency.

Many federal agencies already have leadership teams, of course. The main difference in our recommendation lies in the enterprise-wide focus of the group, necessitating that leadership teams are driven by the success of the agency or department as a whole. When focused on shared goals, problems, and missions, leadership teams can capitalize on the combined power and potential of appointee and career leaders.

Key Elements of Top Management Teams

Research shows that top management teams rely on complementarity—the ability to do things that individuals and non-complementary teams cannot. Four types of complementary leadership are identified for effective management teams:

Task complementarity: Dividing management responsibilities into coherent blocks of tasks in response to increasing demands on leaders' time and attention.

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Expertise complementarity: Differences in expertise among general managers lead to the formation of teams with complementary expertise.

Cognitive complementarity: Differences in how individuals process information help to overcome individual leaders' inabilities to comprehend and act on all aspects of a given strategy, issue or decision.

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Role complementarity: Members of the top management team can assume different leadership and social roles in the organization.

The extent to which senior teams exhibit complementarity varies considerably. In some cases, leaders play complementary roles along all or most of the four dimensions. But the potential benefits of complementarity can be lost through role confusion or in achieving and sustaining agreement about organizational priorities. Organizations manage these risks by adhering to four types of alignment: a common vision, common incentives, communication and trust.

Proactive Talent Management

These types of leadership teams do not form by themselves. Instead, the creation of senior leadership teams must be intentional; they must be consciously constructed to meet the needs of the organization. Ultimately, three commitments to talent management are necessary to create strong leadership in the federal government.

First, the administration must spend time recruiting and appointing political appointees who have proved their superior management skills. Second, the administration must take measures to strengthen the SES as key enablers of government policies. Third, the administration must create, and actively manage, joint leadership teams consisting of both political appointees and career SES members.

Here are three recommendations to meet these commitments:

  • The transition personnel office and the new White House office of presidential personnel should examine all positions open to political appointees and code those that fall into the category of significant management positions. These positions must then be filled by appointees with strong management experience. Similarly, the Office of Personnel Management should examine all SES-level positions and code those which involve significant senior management responsibilities. Assignment to these positions should be proactively managed by OPM and reserved for SES-level executives who possess the desired management experience.
  • Orientation programs about ongoing management processes, current initiatives, and emerging management challenges should be conducted jointly with both political and career executives attending. Then, both political and career executives should be involved in joint team building activities such as strategic off-site meetings, familiarization tours to operational sites, and exercises focused on emerging issues. These events should jump-start the formation of effective leadership teams.
  • Performance accountability of both senior political executives and senior career executives must be addressed. Annual or multiyear performance contracts can align organizational goals with clear management objectives and expectations. Though many agencies and departments address individual accountability, having performance plans that include shared goals and mission outcomes increases buy-in from executives and encourages the formation or use of leadership teams.

Accept the Challenge

Leadership talent management offers both an opportunity and a challenge for the incoming administration. It is an opportunity to reshape the 21st century federal workforce to meet both the demands of the new president and the expectations of the American people.

However, it is a challenge, as the need is immediate and the topic is complex. Meeting this challenge requires recognition that the president is, effectively, the CEO of the federal government. It also requires recognition that policy success demands a talent management strategy that is equally as important as political strategy.

Policy and politics will energize the new administration in its earliest days, but executive management of its programs will ultimately determine success or failure. To have uniquely effective strategic management, the right talent must be in leadership positions. Further, the new administration must invest time and resources in actively managing and employing that talent. Past administrations learned this too late at a high cost to their policy goals.

Start now to develop the concept of an executive talent management program.

ATD Resources

"Developing High-Performance Leadership Teams" (TD at Work)

About the Author

Douglas A. Brook, PhD, is visiting professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He served as acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in the George H.W. Bush administration.

About the Author

Maureen Hartney is a master’s student in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. After earning dual bachelor’s degrees from the University of Florida in political science and history, she was commissioned through the Reserve Officer Training Corps into the Air Force as an intelligence officer.

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