Building a strong, cohesive, and effective leadership team should be your highest priority. Nothing is more important than getting a capable team in place ASAP. As a new appointee, you will face one of two very different scenarios.
In the first scenario, you take office under a brand-new administration. In this case, you may well be the first confirmed official in your department or component organization, which means that you will find yourself spending lots of time sifting through resumés, interviewing candidates, checking references, and negotiating with the White House to get your choice of political appointees. Since this can be a full-time job in itself, appoint a trusted staff member with superb diplomatic skills to keep potential members of your team moving forward through the byzantine appointment process. Act right away and be assertive to get the choice picks. The faster you assemble your team, the faster you can begin having real impact.
Surviving and thriving before your team is fully in place can be incredibly challenging. While you are waiting for your full team to be confirmed by the Senate, you will need to rely on midlevel political appointees (such as deputy assistant secretaries), whose positions do not require confirmation, as well as your organization’s senior career civil servants. Seek to harness the energy and initiative of the former and the subject-matter expertise, deep institutional knowledge, and experience of the latter. If a few individuals from the previous administration occupy mission-critical positions, you may want to ask them to stay on until their successors are confirmed.
Under the second scenario, you take office in the middle of an administration or during a second term. As a latecomer to the party, you will probably inherit a team you did not choose. Here, it’s important to take the time to get to know your staff members before deciding whether or not you’ll need to make any changes to the roster.
In either scenario, the number of political appointees is likely to be quite limited, so develop key relationships with career staff and ask your predecessor about the best leaders within the organization. It is absolutely critical to include senior career civil servants in your leadership circle. Don’t distrust or denigrate them because they faithfully served the previous administration—they were only doing their jobs! Instead, build trust and engage them, and you will benefit enormously from their institutional knowledge and experience. You will also signal to the workforce at large that they are “inside the tent” and part of your team.
Take particular care on two fronts. First, you may find that you’ve come to rely on, and trust, a small inner circle of advisors. This is natural, and close advisors can be a solid source of support. But make sure that the group does not prevent you from seeking valuable insights from people outside the inner circle as well—especially from others in your organization. An insular, inaccessible leader can create resentment and competition and sap morale. Second, be certain that the subordinates you empower are worthy of your endorsement. Supporting ineffective—or, worse, abusive—team members will undermine respect for your leadership. And since the organization will take cues from your choices of whom to empower, make sure to get 360-degree perspectives on leaders before endorsing them.
As your team takes shape, be crystal clear about the expectations you have for its members: how you see their roles and responsibilities, how decisions will be made, how you expect them to support you and to work together, and how you will hold them accountable. Then give them as much authority as possible within that framework.
Clearly articulate to your team the things that really matter to you: the issues you are determined to advance aggressively, the ones to keep on the back burner for now, and where you want your team to take risks instead of playing it safe to avoid mistakes. If something is really important to you, put a senior staff member in charge of it and then hold him or her accountable for results.
Early on, and periodically thereafter, get out of the office with your core team to deepen relationships, build trust, and promote camaraderie.