Monday, March 02, 2009

Managing The Transition in the Department of Defense

Ever wonder what happens in governmental offices after a change of presidential administration? Unlike most other countries, the US has a system of patronage, where most of the highest ranking positions serve at the pleasure of the chief executive, rather than as permanent members of the civil service. So what happens when one president leaves and one arrives, sweeping away huge numbers of established staffers and bringing in scores of newcomers?

Kevin Billings, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Logistics under President Bush (and who also happens to be a 1977 graduate of the University of Puget Sound), has an insider's perspective, as he agreed to stay on through the transition to help make the change-over go as smoothly as possible. Secretary Billings has sent me a letter he drafted and has been giving to the incoming political appointees to help them adjust to their new positions. Kevin has graciously allowed me to post the letter here:

It’s Not About You – Unsolicited Advice to Political Appointees Coming to DoD

Congratulations! The President has asked you to come to the Pentagon as part of his team. This will be one of the most challenging jobs you’ve ever had – and if you do it right – one of the most rewarding.

Every hour of every day you get to work with the best people in the world. I often say, I get to go to work with over a million Type-A volunteers every day who will all take a bullet to defend this country. How amazing is that?

All of these wonderful Americans get that you are part of the civilian chain of command. They, like you, have taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and your new role in that Constitution makes you to many – if not all – their superior. As a result, they will with genuine respect, call you Sir or Ma’am, but don’t let it go to your head. However, that is easier said than done.

There are staff and Action Officers to facilitate your efforts and they will treat you with great respect. Perhaps more than you think you deserve or are comfortable with. But it is important to remember – it’s not about you – it’s about the position you hold and the President who put you there.

With that in mind, I offer some lessons learned. Most of this is obvious – good manners and kindness go a long way – but, its not something I ever saw put in one place and its startling how many folks don’t get it or it never grows on them.

Honor the Traditions and Customs

People will stand up when you walk in a room. Everyone, it seems, calls you Sir or Ma’am. Your staff will walk on your left, leaving in a tradition from medieval times, the honored position on the right. You have rank and you will be treated accordingly. You will have peers, you will have subordinates and you will have seniors. It is imperative that you understand those relationships, and the enormous history and tradition that surround all this protocol, and behave in view of that.

I had a colleague who came out of the private sector and was quite proud of that. Informality was the order of the day in his previous life and he wanted to change the culture so that the norm around him reflected what he was comfortable with. It worked where he had been, so he thought it would put people at ease and make the environment more conducive to getting things done. All noble goals, but it had the opposite effect. Instead of being more comfortable, people were put in a position of compromising long held traditions that the Military and the Pentagon hold dear and actually facilitate getting work done to make their boss happy.

For someone coming to the Pentagon from the private sector, as I did, equate it to going to do business in a foreign country. To be effective, there are mores and customs that one is expected to appreciate learn and practice and in the Pentagon it is the same. For example, one would not go to Japan and not understand the importance of bowing or simply take a business card from someone and glance at it and move on to the next conversation. You would bow in a manner similar to your host and you would take a business card with two hands and take an appropriate amount of time to read it and reflect upon it. Simple gestures that go a long way toward saying you respect the institution. It’s the same in the Pentagon. It’s about respecting the institution and those who serve it.

Be humble – remember who you work for

In these jobs you work for a lot of people. There is your direct boss. Your boss’s boss and somewhere up the chain, the SECDEF (there is even a new language to learn – acronyms) and the President of the United States (POTUS). But most of all you work for the American people. This is both great for the ego and hugely humbling. Its important to always reflect on the hugely humbling part – your ego will take care of itself.

Take care of your people

The people who work for you, both in uniform and civilians are dedicated professionals who work in the largest bureaucracy in America. Their jobs are to make sure you function and the position is effective within that bureaucracy. They aren’t motivated by the same things as folks in the private sector and their rewards systems are different.

Take the time to understand how performance reviews are written and do the things you can do to make sure that the people who are taking care of you get taken care of by the system. Make the appropriate phone calls on behalf of your people when they are competing for new job assignments. Work with your senior military staff to make sure the right words and right stratification is in the military performance reviews.

Money doesn’t motivate here the way it does on the outside. Look for ways within the system to give people time off or other incentives for work well done.

Be aware of the stress level within your staff and down your chain. Do what you can to effectively manage the work load so that people don’t get burned out. You’ll want to go at warp speed all the time – especially when you first come in. Take care that you don’t burn your folks out. Don’t forget that while they are working 18 hours a day for you, they have family at home sometimes more than an hour commute away.

Listen, Listen, Listen

There will be plenty of opportunities to share your wisdom. But first listen. You will have preconceived ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong – and that’s good – but before you make a pronouncement about something, make sure you have all the facts and you have the total situational awareness before you speak.

Listen carefully for the nuances of what is being said and by whom. Have a sounding board so that you can make sure you heard what you thought you just heard. Take the time to ask for others’ thoughts and ideas before making up your mind.

Never forget that just about EVERYTHING has already happened at least once in the Pentagon. What ever it is that seems new to you, has in fact already HAPPENED so always remember that as a context for your analysis and decision.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Transparency is a large part of insuring the success of your organization. Make sure people know what you are doing and why you’re doing it – both inside your organization and outside. Clearly communicating priorities and expectations is fundamental to managing and leading. Like it or not, speculation regarding just about everything is rampant. It is the nature of the beast. The antidote to speculation and rumor is transparency. The more you communicate and listen for feedback, the less likely you will be to step into something you’d rather not have.

Understand, appreciate and respect the systems of the bureaucracy

You are in an organization of hundreds of thousands of people in uniform, combined with hundreds of thousands of civilians and even more contractors. These people manage thousands of programs worth hundreds of billions of dollars and they are responsible for delivering outcomes. There need to be systems and processes in place to manage all of that. Will you find that constraining? Yes. Can they be improved? Yes, your ideas on how to improve them are important. But how you get from here to there will be in large measure dependent on how well you work within the system.

Because of your position, you will be able to change certain things while you are in place simply because of your throw-weight. However, if you want the change to be lasting, it needs to be written down, vetted and memorialized in policy. This is the really hard work of government. Walking things through what seems to be endless coordination is often what separates lasting policy from the “flavor of the month.” Cultivate those who understand and can effectively work the system.

Get out of your Office

People will come to you when you ask. Your staff will schedule appointments or come in with things for you to sign or read. Walk your spaces. Make sure you go by and see your staff at their desks. Just as importantly, there are lots of folks that effect your organization who won’t come see you until asked or until there is something that needs your attention. Take the time to go visit them. You don’t always have to have an agenda. It’s amazing what you learn when you get out of your office.

It is more than the Pentagon

The real business of the Defense Department is not the inside baseball of the Pentagon – it is in supporting the Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Merchant Mariners in the fight. Visit them, listen to them, and bring their thoughts back and share them with your colleagues. The things that you learn will be invaluable to the overall perspective you have for your job, and the people you meet will make you proud simply to be associated with them.

Say Thank You – Often

You learned this before you ever went to school. People will do little things for you all the time. Don’t let it go by without acknowledging it. You might think, “It’s their job, why do I need to thank them?” Well, when you need someone to go the extra mile, you might find it a lot easier if they know you really appreciate what they do everyday. Recognize exceptional work and effort with notes or pizza, or even champagne, but remember to say thank you for the little things as well.

Have a sense of humor

There will be things that just befuddle you, and the best thing you can do is just laugh. You will be dealing with very serious issues everyday that affect the lives and safety of America’s finest. Its serious business, but everything isn’t life and death – some things are – know the difference and be able to laugh at the situation and most importantly be able to laugh at yourself. It will give you perspective when you really need it.

Have confidence in your self

While most of what I have talked about is how to get along in the system, the President has chosen you to make progress and take whatever organization you have to an improved level. Sometimes to do this, the institution needs some shaking up and there may be times to break some china. Pick your spots. Make sure you know the consequences of your actions and are willing to live with them. This is the art of balancing that will make you effective.

Admiral Halsey once said, “There are no great people, just ordinary people called upon to do great things.” When it comes to our men and women in uniform, answering the call to serve them, is a truly a great thing. Again, congratulations, good luck, and THANK YOU!


Kevin Billings said...


Huge numbers of people don't leave; and without debating semantics, the term patronage does a huge disservice to the process and the people in the process.

First, of the 25,000 people who work in the Pentagon, only about 150 are political appointees and of those a third require confirmation by the United States Senate. For example, in the Air Force alone, there are 330,000 active duty Airmen; 167,000 civilians; 75,000 Reservist; and 107,000 Air National Guard Airmen. Of that 679,000 people worldwide, 13 are political appointees and 7 require Senate confirmation.

Second, the Constitution establishes civilian control of the military which is very clearly defined in Title 10 of the US Code. The President is Commander in Chief and as CINC he is entitled to having the people he believes will serve him best leading the civilian control.

That is why transitions are important and a transition in a time of war at DoD, it is even more important that it be done right.

Bill Reidway said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Reidway said...

I'm always happy to see evidence of wisdom and practicality in government - I could use a letter like this out in the private sector. Thanks for posting, Seth, and to you, Mr. Secretary, for your service.

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