The Transition Team … in Transition

Lessons for boards on making the right picks—from a White House pro.

By Nels Olson, Vice Chairman and Co-Leader, Board & CEO Services, Korn Ferry

The headlines have already been made—we know the picks for the big cabinet posts and other senior roles in the new presidential administration. But that’s only scratching the surface, with several thousands of federal government slots still left to fill, including some 1,200 positions that require confirmation by the Senate.

The question is just how much the Corner Office can teach the Oval Office here.

The new administration is, of course, steeped in private-sector experience. In my own career, I’ve seen the transition from both ends—first in the Bush 41 White House Office of Presidential Personnel, then for the past 24 years as an advisor and recruiter for CEOs and boards of leading companies. I was also a member of Mitt Romney’s transition team for his ultimately unsuccessful presidential bid. The key lesson: many of the best practices now routinely followed by CEOs and their boards to ensure optimal top team selection can be easily applied to presidential transition planning.

For starters, it’s important to undertake any transition planning within a disciplined structure. To ensure candidates for critical positions are selected because they are the most capable, professional practice dictates the use of some sort of matrix with experience and competencies that will be required for various positions and can be used as a blueprint to assess contenders. The higher and more sensitive the position the more important it is to factor in personality traits and softer skills, in addition to professional capabilities and past experience. Diversity in the broadest sense—including gender, ethnicity, geography, age and perspectives—should remain a priority, as there is growing evidence that diverse teams are more effective.

Keep in mind that those who are best qualified on paper may not prove to be the best fit for the team. This will likely be a crucial consideration in high-stakes situations, when the top team must collaborate to reach the best decisions. For all mission-critical positions, leverage the latest assessment tools and techniques, which can now predict with significant accuracy how well someone is likely to perform in a particular position under real-life conditions.

The last but critically important step is to maintain a state-of-the-art vetting process. Even in CEO and C-suite appointments, unpleasant surprises may emerge about someone’s qualifications or background, whether professional or personal, which can be embarrassing and, more important, a distraction or derailment to accomplishing important work. Vetting candidates—a final, essential hurdle—must be exhaustive and uncover anything that may be a potential disqualifier. This is an even more important consideration today given a fractious, partisan political landscape where opponents will almost certainly find the candidate’s shortcomings, or worse, if they are missed. So make sure to follow and document a rigorous vetting process, one that’s able to withstand external scrutiny if necessary.

The selections of the transition team will be examined under a microscope, as they should be; they are essential to the proper functioning of the new administration. The president’s cabinet and key staff, and their ability to work effectively across agencies, is not unlike the corporate boardroom and the CEO and team, working across various functions to execute on the strategy. Those charged with making these selections should consider not only the individuals’ skills and experience but team dynamics.

Finally, the presidential transition team should resist the temptation to take any shortcuts and instead stick to proven practices when filling top-level posts, ensuring the new administration is equipped from the start with the top talent it will require for success.