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Gearing up for post-election changes

Oct. 7, 2012 - 09:00AM   |  
By PAUL R. LAWRENCE   |   Comments

In January, new senior political leaders will begin their journey to Washington. The journey will consist of both a physical move to Washington in many cases, as well as a journey through the selection, nomination and confirmation process.

A new president will naturally bring an entire new team to Washington. President Obama, if re-elected, is likely to both bring in new people and move current political executives to new positions. The rumor mill is already abuzz with speculation of new appointments and new assignments.

The White House Office of Presidential Personnel will face the challenging task of selecting or reassigning people. Based on three years of research, I gained an increased understanding of the differences among types of positions in Washington. All jobs are not the same.

Beginning in 2009, the Ernst & Young Initiative on Leadership interviewed 32 senior political executives to understand how they addressed the management challenges they faced when assuming leadership for their organizations.

This research resulted in “Paths to Making a Difference: Leading in Government.” An expanded second edition will be published in January.

During the research for the project, I concluded that jobs in government have different responsibilities and require different career experiences. “Paths to Making a Difference” is organized around the following types of jobs:

Deputy secretaries: The chief operating officers of departments.

Producers: Political executives who run production-type organizations.

Infrastructors: Political executives responsible for the development and enhancement of the nation’s economic infrastructure.

Regulators: Political executives leading regulatory agencies.

Scientists: Political executives leading science agencies.

Collaborators: Political executives whose organizations require a high level of collaboration with other agencies.

This framework could be a valuable tool for the Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP) as it seeks to recruit top-notch individuals to lead government over the next four years. Instead of clustering job searches around policy arenas such as health, defense or energy, job searches can focus on the skills needed for a specific type of agency.

To understand how OPP might use this framework, let’s focus on one of these job types — the producers. These executives are driven by numbers and producing the results expected of them.

The emphasis in these positions is management skills, not policy. These executives spend most of their time improving the performance of their organizations and the delivery of services to citizens.

Producers lead agencies such as the Patent and Trademark Office, Office of Federal Student Aid, Internal Revenue Service, Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration. Each producer is similar to a factory manager, concerned about inputs, accuracy and cycle time in the processing of patents, student aid, tax forms or disability payments.

Who could serve as a producer? The project showed that producers have a common working style: disciplined and focused on delivering outputs, data-oriented and comfortable being out of the office running town hall meetings.

Conversely, this would not be a good fit for a “big picture” person, who doesn’t worry how the work gets done and has little interest in meeting or communicating with front-line workers.

For this type of position, the proverbial private-sector manager could be a good fit. Many of the producers interviewed for “Paths to Making a Difference” had private-sector experience.

However, if placed in a policy position, business leaders might be frustrated by the lengthy policy development process — over which they might have little control.

Our advice to OPP is to identify and select political executives based on a detailed understanding of the nature of each job and how much management experience is required. OPP can then identify the right experience for specific jobs.

Paul R. Lawrence, Ph.D., is a principal in Ernst & Young LLP’s Government Practice. Email him at

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