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Advice for New Governors as They Transition Into Office

For one, don’t assume the last governor’s appointees want to leave.

Tennessee Gov.-elect Bill Lee, right, speaks during a news conference with outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam.
Tennessee Gov.-elect Bill Lee, right, speaks during a news conference with outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam.
(AP/Mark Humphrey)
In January, 20 new governors will take over the top leadership spot in their states, becoming the bosses of 750,000 state employees in the executive branches alone. 

"As the CEO of the state, a new governor automatically manages one of the largest workforces in the state," says Laurie Gill, incoming president of the National Association of Personnel Executives. "They’re going to need their employees to carry out their work."

We've spent nearly 30 years researching management in state and local government. With that knowledge base, and help from other management experts, we compiled a report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government on transition planning. 

As we wrote in the report, "If a transition isn’t handled with care and thought, and according to well-established principles, the new administration is unlikely to reach the results it desires."

Here is our advice for how governor-elects and their staffs should be spending the next few months.

Meet with employee groups before inauguration.

A willingness to accept invitations to speak with state employees not only helps new governors learn about potential problems but also demonstrates that they care about their workforces. 

"If they think you don’t care about them, watch out," says Sara Wilson, who was a human resources director for six Virginia governors before retiring in April. "Employees have to know you’re engaged with them."

When Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam started his first term in 2011, the new administration held focus groups of state employees in four of the state’s biggest cities. What they heard from employees, and from a survey of cabinet departments, led to a major reform of civil service laws, which overhauled how the state hires, promotes and fires people.

Use past employee surveys, performance audits and annual HR reports to identify workforce problems. 

Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, for instance, has an opportunity to gain insight into her workforce by examining the state’s 2017 employee engagement survey. Through that, she would learn that nearly half of state workers believe there’s a lack of sufficient staff, and roughly a third see "unnecessary paperwork" as a big barrier to productivity. While hiring more staff is a harder sell financially, cutting down on paperwork is conceivable.

Appoint cabinet members carefully but as speedily as possible. 

Getting key appointees in place, without delay, is critical to putting a strategic agenda into action and to relationship-building among the leadership team. Subject expertise is important but so is a work style that’s compatible with the governor. 

"You need to look for personalities that will fit," says Bob Blair, who has been the director of administrative services for Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s two terms and first met Kasich when they were both legislative interns in the 1970s. "You don’t want micromanagers, and you don’t want people who can’t see the big picture. You need to be looking at softer skills. Can they get along with people and build a team?"

Don’t assume the last governor’s appointees want to leave. 

Particularly when there is a change in party, new administrations often assume that cabinet members plan to exit with their former bosses. That’s often not the case. Having conversations soon after Election Day with existing appointees about their intentions can help the new administration target the positions they need to fill. 

Include top career officials, such as assistant directors and program managers, in meetings with cabinet appointees. 

Employees who have lived through multiple transitions are often suspicious and apprehensive about the ideas and abilities of new appointees, especially if they have never have worked in government before. Getting them to convene can avoid that and foster better relationships.

Focus on succession planning. 

Of the 20 new governors, 17 are replacing people who held the state’s top spot for eight years or more. Many baby boomers have deferred retirement until the end of their boss’ term. Now, new governors can expect more and more high-level managers heading toward the door.

"With the administration change, we’ll begin to see retirements tick up," says Rebecca Hunter, the director of human resources in Tennessee, where Bill Lee will replace Haslam. "It’s critical to make sure that mission-critical roles have been identified and that there is a plan in place for who is going to step into those."

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Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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