Top Transition Mistake: Assuming “They” Are All Idiots

Early this month, the Council for Excellence in Government, the Senior Executive Association, Harvard Business Publishing and The Washington Post hosted an interactive workshop Accelerating Leadership Transitions at the National Press Club led by Dr. Michael Watkins, author of the international bestsellers, “The First Ninety Days and co-author of “The First 90 Days in Government.”

Dr. Watkins started the workshop with the employees’ hopes and fears for the Obama Administration. There were several direct quotes there but one that leaped out the screen/page was this one: “De-politicization of entire organizations. Value employees for their talents and contributions and not for their assumed political affiliation.”

I don’t know if the contributor of that quote came from DOJ, DHS, State or elsewhere.

In any case, the workshop included top ten lists of mistakes that political appointees and civil servants make when dealing with each other during transition:

Top Ten Mistakes of Political Appointees in Dealing With Career Civil Servants:

#10. Assuming government runs like a business.

#9. Poor ethical choices.

#8. Unclear vision/goals/setting priorities.

#7. Not valuing existing processes/procedures.

#6. Only getting input from senior executives.

#5. Change for the sake of change.

#4. Not understanding agency culture and history.

#3. Trying to change too much too fast (a challenge for this new administration)

#2. Not learning the issues/not listening/coming in with preset ideas/rush to judgments.

#1. Ignoring/underestimating/distrusting career people (i.e. assuming they are all idiots).

Advice to Political Appointees in Dealing with Career Civil Servants

“Career staff is in for the long run. You are coming in with great enthusiasm for crafting a new paradigm. So did the last crew! Consult and listen carefully, and you will get valuable advice and learn how to avoid pitfalls. Communicate your frustration, and allow a chance for the interaction to improve before giving up.”

More in the workshop.

Top Ten Mistakes of Career Civil Servants Dealing With Political Appointees:

#10.Not speaking up/pushing back/”yessing” the boss.

#9. Hoarding information/protecting turf/territorialism.

#8. Becoming paralyzed/reactive due to uncertainty about direction.

#7. Clinging too hard to policy positions/focusing on barriers.

#6. Assuming political appointees know less than they do.

#5. Assuming appointees know more than they do.

#4. Hiding issues/not being forthcoming about issues.

#3. Attempting to “manage”/”manipulate”/”sell” political appointees.

#2. “This too shall pass”/”We tried that”/passive resistance/cynicism.

#1. Ignoring/underestimating/distrusting political appointees (i.e. assuming they are all idiots).

Advice to Career Civil Servants in Dealing with Political Appointees:

“Remember that political appointees are there to support the President’s agenda. Remember that you are there both to support them and to create and preserve the human infrastructure for this administration and its successors.”

“Serve and advise to the best of your ability at all times. You are not there to be either a road block or a “yes man.” Be patient.”

There is more in the workshop — s
o you’ve got to watch it! I think this is a useful session not just for political appointees and senior civil servants but also for Foreign Service officers transitioning into their new jobs every 2-3 years. Dr. Watkins also shared a transition story involving one of the bureaus at State some years ago – includes a used car person and a colored telephone. Heh!

To see the video of the workshop, visit You need to supply your name, title, organization and email address (non-government email is acceptable) in order to view the video. The video runs for 1:29:00 with intros. Dr. Watkins starts at about 9 minutes into the video. A 16-page downloadable handout is also posted with the video.

Dr. Watkins also writes a blog on leadership, The Leading Edge, at the Harvard Business School Publishing. Check it out!