As much of the attention is on Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, there’s a far different scene taking place just west of the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The massive, 550-plus-room edifice is the workspace of the president’s immediate staff and multiple tiers of support staff. There, hundreds of people were cleaning out their desks, with hundreds more ready to move in to replace them.
It’s a massive workforce turnover that, despite last week’s US Capitol attack and ensuing political bitterness, is standard practice when there is a change of presidential administrations. While the sheer size of the shift has few corporate equivalents, experts say the incoming group of executives and administrators share the same objective as their corporate counterparts when they start new jobs: establish clear sets of goals and objectives, and accomplish as much as possible in the first few months on the job. “They should have a clear vision on how the administration should run, along with standards in place of what’s important to them,” says Nels Olson, global leader of Korn Ferry’s Government Affairs practice.
Presidents are required to fill roughly 4,000 politically appointed positions in the executive branch, including more than 1,250 that require Senate confirmation, such as cabinet-level positions, ambassadorships, and other top leadership posts. There are another 2,800 positions that also are filled by presidential appointment, some of which, such as the Department of Interior’s assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, are considerably lower profile. Not everything is filled overnight, Olson says, as teams within the Biden administration will continue vetting potential candidates over the next several weeks.
However, the number of presidential appointments is essentially a rounding error compared to the more than 2 million federal government employees (not including Postal Service workers) those executives will oversee. Having a good working relationship with these employees, many of whom have devoted their careers to working in government, is critical to get things accomplished. “If you don’t have a team with the right strategy, it’s all for naught,” says Dennis Carey, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and coleader of the firm’s Board & CEO Services practice.
If presidential history is any guide, there likely will be a honeymoon effect for the first few weeks of the administration, when the majority of career civil servants will be energized by the new leaders. That’s when the new leaders need to clearly communicate their top priorities, along with expectations of acceptable behaviors and standards, Olson says. Making decisions quickly and decisively is critical. “The first year or so of any admin is the chance to get something done,” he says.
After that period, a vast majority of those career civil servants will follow their new bosses’ wishes, but other obstacles loom larger. People who object to policy changes have time to lobby against them. Then there are some bureaucrats who, since they haven’t executed what their bosses wanted early in the administration’s term, could feel emboldened to stonewall projects and just wait until the next election. “It’s 10 times more difficult” than big initiatives in the private sector, Carey estimates, because of the variety of legislative, judicial, and administrative hoops government leaders have to navigate.