Career Advice

Presidential transitions: Your chance to shine

Bob Woods

Although academics and think tanks spend a lot of time studying presidential transitions, there is much less information on how government professionals should handle them. The private-sector counterpart is the case of one company being acquired by another. Many of the same dynamics come into play, and many of the same survival techniques are needed.

In any transition, the new team is composed of the winners. No matter how ugly, no matter how painful, no matter the cost, they won. They are usually less than fully informed and are not suffering from an overload of facts. The unsettling truth is that they now must make sure the railroad is running and the trains are on time.

In a short crease of time, senior leaders’ careers can be made or destroyed. Preparation is essential because the time to react and support the new team will be short, hectic and somewhat chaotic. So you must be ready to roll before the transition happens.

Careerists should start by doing some research on the incoming team members. Who are they? Where did they come from? What is their tie to the president? What is their background? Are there issues they campaigned on that will affect your agency and its operations?

You will earn points if you keep the process efficient and anticipate the problems the new team will encounter.

Because time is short, you will earn points if you keep the process efficient and anticipate the problems the new team will encounter. The first 100 days of a presidency are the material of many books and the determiner of the success of many regimes. When team members look back on those early days, they will fondly remember those who anticipated, prepared and nurtured. Those factors also determine the status of career leaders and their organizations in the future.

Initial briefings should cover those topics and any others that the political team identifies. This is no time to be bureaucratic. Never do anything outside the law or ethical standards, but don’t become an impediment either. And never exercise the old bureaucratic tactic of malicious compliance. For the uninitiated, that is the art of giving people what they asked for even if it kills them.

The sequence of events in this high-pressure environment matters. Don’t make the first three events negative and confrontational. It’s the equivalent of being called up from the minors to the major league. If you strike out the first three times at bat, you are not likely to get other chances. If you give negative answers, make sure to blend them with positive responses so you don’t get a reputation for always saying no.

Be prepared to deal with the new team’s biases and preconceptions. Has the agency gotten negative or unflattering press coverage lately? If so, don’t be defensive and be prepared to educate the new team about the issues. In 12 months, they will own those issues whether they know it or not. They need to see you as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

In summary, don’t be a bureaucrat, don’t be partisan, don’t cite the past, don’t take it personally that there is a new team, don’t think this never happened before, don’t exercise malicious compliance, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Do understand that different doesn’t mean bad, demonstrate preparation, and be professional.

Presidential transitions are much like other transitions. They represent change, uncertainty and a loss of control. However, leaders who show they can adapt and who prepare and support the new team are the ones who are likely to survive and even thrive.

About the Author

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

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