‘Superstar’ executives lend advice to career SES on upcoming transition

With roughly half of the current senior executive corps having never experienced a presidential transition before, many career employees have a bit of a learning curve when it comes to preparing for the next five months and beyond.

Yet even senior executives who might have a specific or official role as an agency transition leader or team member have a role to play, the Senior Executives Association, along with its Distinguished Executives Advisory Network (or DEAN’s list), said in its new guidebook for career leaders.

The DEAN’s list consists of high-achieving executives, many of whom have won Presidential Rank Awards or some other recognition in the past. SEA spoke with successful “superstar” executives to gather advice for the next crop of career leaders as they prepare for the upcoming transition.

“Some of those folks have questions: ‘I’m not in the position where I’m going to be tasked with acting. But what do I need to do to prepare myself and to prepare those who are important to me and part of the broader organization?'” said interim SEA president Jason Briefel. “That speaks more broadly to the anxiety that can crop up around the transition period when there is a lot of change.”

Career senior executives have the opportunity to serve as an institutional rock as current political appointees leave and new ones take their place. And agencies might ask current SES to assume more work or new responsibilities, the handbook said.

Some of those tasks include:

  • Deciding what programs, projects and policies might be impacted by periods of heavy turnover or new policies from the new president.
  • Helping determine which personnel are likely to leave and how the agency will continue to handle their work when they do.
  • Supporting transition teams and new political appointees immediately after the election and during the first 100 days of the new administration.
  • Becoming involved in the plan to transfer institutional knowledge to new appointees.
  • Helping transition teams write agency policy guides or an internal “Agency 101” briefing book.
  • Working with agency transition leaders to train new employees on the organization’s ethics, records management, security and human resources practices.

“Regardless of whether they’re intimately involved in the transition or not, they still need to make sure that their organizations are operating and moving forward — that the trains are moving [and] benefits and services are being delivered,” Briefel said.

Working in an ‘acting’ position

Career executives have a tricky balancing act to walk if they accept an acting position in the interim before a political appointee takes the lead.

“Part of the trick is not letting your organization get bogged down, but also being sensitive to some of those policy decisions that may sometimes be left to wait,” Briefel said.

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As an acting manager, executives should avoid “getting in front” of the incoming political appointee but shouldn’t hold back from making key decisions when necessary.

“Your role is to keep the trains on the tracks, maintain key operations and a positive work environment and ensure a positive handover to the new team,” the handbook said. “It is important to be bold, and lead and coach your people through this challenging transition, without overstepping your political support.”

There’s a chance that some career executives might find themselves in these acting roles for longer periods of time than they might originally anticipate, as presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed positions often have several months to process.

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At the same time, the SES experts advised acting executives to take the job seriously but understand that their tenure on the job isn’t supposed to be permanent.

“‘Do the best you can, but remember that someone else will take that position,'” a distinguished executive said in the handbook.

Another executive, who served in an acting position for more than a year, suggested that career executives use written memos over phone calls, which will help build an agency’s record of information to the new appointees when they come on board.

“‘A phone call is fleeting, but if you put it in writing, they’ll ask questions if they don’t understand,'” the executive said.

SEA is one of a few other organizations that’s released new advice for federal employees. It’s hosted two webinars for senior executives on the presidential transition so far and has two more planned for the fall, Briefel said.

And the organization will likely add a few different updates to the handbook as SEA gets more feedback from its members about their questions and concerns. Briefel said the goal is to have this handbook serve as “living document” for career executives during the transition.