New to Office? Better Call the Right Plays

Getting ready to take office is a lot like putting together a football team.
by | December 15, 2010 AT 11:30 AM
Football play drawn on green board

I love these first few weeks of December. After the supply of turkey leftovers is finally exhausted and the relatives have returned to their homes, I can settle down in the man-cave and prep for the best four months of the year. Holidays have the kids all excited; cold weather puts the wife into full-on snuggle mode; and football reigns supreme.

This year, as an added bonus, an election year with massive turnover in many of our state and city governments is keeping me entertained between kickoffs. As a student of government, I love to watch the transition process almost as much as I love watching Steelers football.

The time between Turkey Day and Inauguration Day sets the tone for these incoming administrations. Until now, all of the campaigning and strategizing have had to focus on winning the election, and while many may have had high-level thoughts on direction, most likely just had their sights trained in Election Day.

Now, though, swearing-in is looming like the next big season, and everyone has their eyes on building a team that can win the big game. Your choices of which players to draft, which plays to include in your playbook, and your overall strategy will impact your performance on the field for the next four years. You will win or lose and prosper or struggle in a large part based on the decisions you make in these very short weeks.

The Players You Choose

There are not a lot of coaches who would draft a quarterback if that person had never started in that position in college. It only makes sense that your ability to play the position in the past is a good indicator of your performance in the future. However, when we hire the players to run government — those players to fill the cabinet and director positions — we often hire people who have never proven they can be successful in these roles.

My favorite example is the elected official whose first formal hire is to name their campaign head as the new chief of staff. After all, the thinking goes, who better suited for QB than the trusted adviser who has been with the candidate for the long road to office?

The problem is, rarely has the chief of staff played the position of starting quarterback, and more often than not, they are not suited for the job. What makes a great campaign manager (knowing the political landscape, setting up events, strategizing over messages and direction) doesn't translate to making good chiefs of staff, and they have a hard time separating the need to run government with the political mindsets they hold. Does that mean none of them should be hired? Absolutely not. (Hey, Matt Cassel was just named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month, and he never even started for his college. But people like Matt Cassel are the exception, not the rule.)

This applies to so many of the key hires made this month and next. If you want to win the big game, you have to look for players who know the game, have played the game and who love the game. You have to balance the highly political with the highly operational minded managers. If you need a more political-minded QB, then find a running back who can carry the operational load and can manage the day-to-day operations of your organization. Find cabinet members and department heads who have experience running large government-like organizations, can cope with the managerial challenges, the staff and budget issues, and the non-stop stream of customer interests. Often, experience in a law firm or running a very successful family business does not predict success overseeing 1,400 employees who make squishy widgets. I'm not so naïve as to think we'll put all politics aside, but I am optimistic enough to offer that there are skilled people on both sides of the spectrum that can give your team a better chance at winning.

Above all, let's try to find people who love government. You cannot improve something you despise, and these jobs should not be a platform for lobbing grenades into the public sector from the inside. People who love government run better departments than their government-bashing counterparts because they simply care enough to stick it out through the frustration of the bureaucracy. Players who love the game will play through all kinds of adversity to win. They find joy is work, and find energy to keep going when others would simply move on. A love for government should be a prerequisite for employment in any high level position.

The Playbook

Some teams and coaches are predictable — very predictable. At third and short, they are running it up the middle. If you stack the middle, soon it will be fourth and short and they'll be punting. Predictable play-calling is rarely successful. We think the reason we continue to run these plays is because they have a high success ratio. The real reason we keep returning to them is because they're comfortable and we don't have any better ideas.

If your playbook only includes the following popular plays, then you're probably in for a comfortable — but less than winning — season.

I Formation: Erase all evidence the previous administration ever existed. That includes a complete redesign of the websites, firing all appointed employees, canceling as many programs as possible, and setting up our own fact-finding blue-ribbon commissions. It's like Herm Edwards ball: predictable, and, although it eats some clock, it rarely moves you forward with purpose.

Wildcat: Let's throw something completely different at them and see if we can get a touchdown. Instead of the normal formation, let's reorganize our organizations to show change and progress. The Wildcat in football usually boils down to a direct snap to the running back to then running exactly the same as if the quarterback had handed the ball off. It saves maybe half a second. In government, it's changing the reporting structure of the agency hoping it will ... well, I'm not really sure what we hope for in a reorganization, because we're running the ball the same way we have for decades. Maybe we save half a second. Hooray!

Prevent D: Try to follow up on the many rumors you heard during the campaign. This team has 30 more fleet cars than they need; that person is having an affair with this one; so-and-so takes two-hour lunches; this other department is extremely over-budgeted. You get the idea. These kinds of rumors may make it seem like the world has collapsed and it's up to you to save it, but the last administration heard the same things, as did every one before it.

These plays rarely win games. In my opinion you'd be better off losing the entire playbook in the hotel bar like a nervous rookie and just going back to basics.

Ask yourself, what do we want to accomplish this administration, and what are the big plays that are going to move us there? Does erasing the last person's efforts help us educate kids? Does a reorganization help families find jobs, or stay healthy? If we tracked down every rumor and stomped on it, would we be any closer to a running the city, county, or state that we envision?

This Month's Theme: You've Won, Now What?

Ken and I rarely write about elected officials and appointed positions. After living through many elections, we are convinced that radical change rarely happens because of an administrative change over. However, for the next month, leading up to inauguration time, we're going to address some of the things that elected officials, and the seniors leaders they will be hiring, can do to prove us wrong.

We're not political advisers and we're not pundits for either side. We're just managers who have lived through their share of changes and have seen a lot of bad and some good come from them. From our perspective, the season is about to begin, and as fans of the game, this is simply what we are hoping to see.

Have something you want to see out of the next administration, or do you have a great transition story? Share it with us here!