Once the agenda is established, the president-elect should use the transition period to quickly fill the new administration’s leadership roles. As we have recommended in the past, the president-elect should aim to submit 100 nominations to Congress by Inauguration Week and get up to 500 appointments approved within the first seven months of taking office. (See “Why The US Presidential-Transition Process Should Start Now,” BCG article, September 2016.) Getting the right people in place, however, is infinitely more important than filling the roles with just anyone. Taking a few critical steps will allow the new administration to do so.
First, the new administration needs to gain a basic understanding of what’s required for each of the various roles under consideration. While this may seem self-evident to business leaders, each new administration has to essentially recreate position descriptions for each appointee. Many positions require a specific skill set rather than a detailed understanding of the topic on which a particular agency focuses. Figuring out whether a role requires a specific type of expertise (for example, leadership experience for a cabinet secretary, operational management expertise for a deputy secretary, or topic expertise for key policy positions) is critically important to getting the right people in key roles.
Second, the president-elect needs self-awareness and an objective perception of his or her own strengths and weaknesses in order to pick leaders who complement those characteristics.
Third, although cabinet secretaries are often confirmed quickly, it typically takes 60 to 90 days to get subsequent senior team members approved and on board. Rather than nominating appointees in a cascading fashion—as most prior administrations have done—the president-elect should consider sending slates of nominees to the Senate for approval, so that the nucleus of the leadership team is established in critical agencies all at once. Still, if getting the full slate of cabinet secretaries in place as quickly as possible comes at the expense of installing policy and functional teams in agencies with ambitious change agendas, there will be a big loss in effectiveness.
Finally, the new administration should determine how well each agency is currently performing to better understand what type of leader is best suited for it. For example, if an agency is struggling and needs a major reset, the president-elect should appoint a secretary with the experience to lead a major change-management effort.
It takes significant time to identify, vet, and select political appointees, and these tasks occur during a period in which the president-elect faces myriad other obligations. (See Exhibit 1.) Moreover, this process has become more rigorous in the past several decades, requiring more and more time and resources during the transition period. As such, given recent past experience, presidents-elect should be ready for at least one cabinet nomination to fail—Obama had three—and should prepare a short list of potential alternatives in advance to save time.