The points captured in this article are from various discussions with government CIOs, retired CIOs and other industry IT experts who have shared their best advice for how IT leaders can navigate the current transition. While these tips are presented with an IT lens, the advice holds true for government leaders in general. Here are our top ten takeaways for career government leaders:
- 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.
- Political appointees want to see quick progress and action. Appointees by definition have a different timeframe to accomplish their goals. They are eager to transform whatever area is within their purview, while career staff know how to ensure real transformation occurs and sticks long term. 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.
- As the new person, political appointees 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 credit.”
- Channel your work to something that aligns with their priorities. At first glance, it may seem that the new appointees’ 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, find a way to align it to what your new leadership wants.
- Identify the style and preferences of new leadership. Often people confuse style and competence. This is often exacerbated by issues such as briefing preferences, assumption of knowledge, levels and types of communications, etc. As a career government leader, you may be subconsciously locked into your own patterns of behavior and making assumptions about someone else’s. 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?”
- Meet them where they are. There is wide disparity in experience of incoming political leaders. Some have career backgrounds in the core mission of the agency 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.
- Take care of the little things. Make sure new leaders have the basics like working computers, email, cell phones, etc. Career IT leaders don’t get to have the important discussions about priorities and strategic direction if you fail on the fundamentals.
- 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 ifs” but rather the “what we need to do right now.”
- Use the stop, start, continue rule. If your new leadership has indicated a new direction, you need to pay attention and align to it. If your leadership has identified programs they want to stop, you need to realign your priorities no matter how much you have invested in that program. Most of the work you are doing will fall into the middle. You should 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.
- 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 employee means respecting that reality. Remind yourself that you are committed to the mission of your organization and find a way to get behind the direction your agency leadership is heading.
Change is a 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, leadership coaching, and has many tools to help leaders be agile, maintain resilience, and lead with confidence.
About Suntiva: Suntiva is a business transformation and technology company located in Falls Church, VA, serving Federal Government agencies. We enable our clients to improve performance through people, process, and technology in significant, measurable, and sustainable ways. We provide mission critical information technology, digital transformation, organizational performance, human capital, and acquisition lifecycle solutions—with great minds and great hearts.