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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

Advice to Appointees: Three Conversations to Have Right Away

January 06, 2016


The list of people seeking an audience with newly appointed heads of federal agencies fills up quickly from the moment of confirmation. Included in this list are internal stakeholders within the agency who have executed this drill previously and are prepared with briefing materials. Congress, the media and other government-focused groups are also anxious to engage.

While it’s gratifying to realize so many are following you and your organization’s work, it’s also quickly apparent that accommodating the seemingly endless suppliers of advice and insights must be prioritized. Those who direct policy and fund your agency’s mission at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are obvious recipients of your attention. There are others, both inside of and external to the agency, who should also be high on the list of an astute leader. Based on my experience in government, there are three conversations that I recommend new political executives begin in the earliest days of their tenure.

Conversation One: The Inspector General (IG)

Newly appointed leaders can be the victim of a lack of candor from well-intentioned subordinates who want to start off their relationship with a positive tone. Agency heads are no exception. There is one executive in your agency, however, that will provide you an unvarnished assessment of the landscape upon which you have entered - the inspector general. It’s the IG’s job to assess and report on the integrity, efficiency and effectiveness of your organization. That knowledge will quickly give you a sense of performance strengths and weaknesses and help you understand the organization for which you are now responsible. A healthy relationship with the IG will also foster an ongoing channel for staying informed and setting a tone of accountability during your tenure. In fact, the resources of the office of the inspector general are able to assist at your request in understanding issues, activities, and problems in the agency.

Remember, any past skeletons that emerge during your period of service have the potential to hijack your agenda, take your time and distract your team. It’s wise to learn about any vulnerabilities in advance. A top to bottom review with the inspector general as you enter office will go a long way toward enabling you to be a proactive, responsible leader.

Conversation Two: The Chief Financial Officer (CFO)

Budgeting and funding at federal agencies is likely to be significantly different from what a new agency head coming from outside government has experienced. Even those with financial backgrounds will need to be briefed to better understand the basics of federal financial management. The nexus between policy and your agency’s budget will permeate discussions with both the White House, particularly the Office of Management and Budget, and Congress. To become articulate in advocating for the funding required by your organization to execute its mission, it’s important to come under the tutelage of your chief financial officer early on. The CFO will help you understand the timeline and multi-step processes associated with the budget. Key players and their roles (including yours), terminology and legal requirements will all be covered in your conversation with the CFO.

A side benefit of this conversation is the relationship that will develop between you and the chief financial officer. Like the IG, the CFO’s role in the agency’s fiscal accountability is well-established. Your early association with the CFO provides a visible endorsement of the importance of fiscal accountability and sets a high standard for financial management in your agency.

Conversation Three: Staff in Agency Field Offices

Approximately 85% of the Federal workforce is located outside the Metropolitan Washington area. Even smaller agencies are likely to have employees with remote duty stations. Other arrangements, such as telework, add to the challenge of maintaining a high level of employee engagement. As the agency head, you are responsible for leading all of your associates, not just those in your building. This will require a dedicated effort to initiate and maintain visible relationships with your team. They want and need the opportunity to interact with you, hear your plans and offer input and support. Your employees are proud of their contributions to the agency’s mission and they want you to share in that pride. Visiting field offices will show associates that they are not forgotten and that you value their work and insights.

Successful field office interactions are characterized by appreciation and listening. Your employees don’t expect you to be an immediate expert in what they do, but hope you will be in a learning mode. You must be inspiring, approachable and above all, sincere – they will know if you are just going through the paces. Your associates may not always agree with your policy decisions, but they won’t forget that their new leader made them a priority right from the start.

Keep Talking - Early and Often

The clock is ticking on your tenure from the moment you take the oath of office. These early conversations are foundational to your reputation as the agency head, but they are just the beginning. Continued interaction with each of these constituents will prove mutually beneficial and support the common mission to which you and they are committed.

Linda M. Springer is an Executive Director in the Government and Public Sector Practice of Ernst & Young. Prior to joining Ernst & Young in 2008, she was Director of the Office of Personnel Management. She previously served as the Controller at the Office of Management and Budget and head of the Office of Federal Financial Management.