Presidential Transition Tips

10 Ways for Government Leaders to Navigate the Upcoming Presidential Transition

Suntiva LLC Culture, Leadership Development and Coaching, Workforce and Organizational Development


The points captured in this article are from various discussions with current and retired government senior executives and other industry experts who have shared their best advice on how to navigate the current transition. Here are our top ten takeaways for career government leaders: 

  1. Accept that change is coming, i.e., find a way to get on board. Don’t cling to the policies of past administrations or be so vested in what you have been working on for years that you can’t adapt to new or changing requirements. In a democracy, the voters make choices and being a Federal career employee means respecting that reality. To be effective with new leadership, you need to find a way to get behind the leadership direction consistent with the mission to which you are committed.
  2. A successful relationship between career and political staff is built upon a partnership. The fundamental role of the political appointee is setting goals that carry out the President’s agenda (the “what”). The fundamental role of the career staff is to execute the goals (the “how”). Helping the appointee see your value in outlining “how” to accomplish the “what” can build an early success in the relationship.
  3. Identify the style and preferences of new leadership. Quite often, people confuse style and competence. This can be exacerbated by issues such as briefing preferences, assumption of knowledge, levels and types of communications, etc. You may be subconsciously locked into your own patterns or the prior appointee’s preferences. You can quickly learn the preferences of your new leaders by observing and simply asking some key questions like, “What is your preferred way of communicating?” and “How would you like to be briefed on key issues?” Observe carefully how they respond to different styles.
  4. Meet them where they are.  There is a wide disparity in the experience of incoming political leaders. Some have career backgrounds in an agency’s core mission or the position they are coming into, while others have limited experience with Federal government operations. It is your job to help them get up to speed by quickly assessing the gaps in knowledge and experience that you can help fill. Doing so in a productive and supportive way can be a win for you in building trust, showing your value and ultimately establishing a career-political partnership to get things done.
  5. As the new person, a political appointee will want and need some individual success. It might seem supportive to say, “We are already doing that” or “We have a program underway,” but in reality it says, “This is not your success.”  Remember the old saying — you can get a lot done if you don’t care who gets the credit.
  6. Political appointees want to see quick progress and action. Appointees, by definition, have a different timeframe to accomplish their goals. They are eager to rapidly transform whatever area is within their purview, while career staff have a long-term transformation viewpoint. Combining the two requires communication and collaboration to get quick wins and make sure longer-term progress continues to be in line with the vision.
  7. Be prepared to take action. New appointees want to make a difference quickly. This impacts not just policy and strategy, but also operations, which often means leveraging contracts and spending money. If you have contracts in place to support new initiatives and some funds uncommitted, this will allow you to move more quickly. Imagine telling the new appointee, “We can do that with new funds next year, and then we need six months to put it out for bid on a new contract before we do anything.”
  8. Use the stop, start, continue rule. One of the most important things you can do for your new leadership is to help them understand the universe of programs in place and the legal basis for those program. This will support them in shaping initiatives that further their priorities while respecting the legal guardrails that exist. Within the bounds of legal requirements, you may need to start new programs that align with the new leadership’s agenda or stop programs that do not, no matter how much time you have invested in them. It is smart to continue doing what you are doing until you are told otherwise. This is your opportunity to bring initiatives you care about to the finish line and show results.
  9. Channel your work to something that aligns with their priorities. At first glance, it may seem that the new appointee’s priorities are different from your own. However, they may just be using different language or coming at it from a different angle. If you have a program you want to continue, it is incumbent on you to find a way to explain its basis and align it to what your new leadership wants or can accept. 
  10. Take care of your workforce. This may be the first change in leadership for many of your staff. This can be stressful and, at times, paralyzing as they try to navigate in the new environment. Remind your staff that their day-to-day work will largely remain the same and that when change does happen, you will be there to help them create the path forward. Lead by example and try not to focus on the “what if’s” but rather on the “what we need to do right now.”

Change is constant as our work, markets and the world are transformed by new technology, new approaches and new ideas. Managing change at all levels during a time of leadership transition is critical. Suntiva specializes in change management and leadership coaching, and has many tools to help leaders be agile, maintain resilience, and lead with confidence. 

Written by Wendy Myers & Mark Day

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