Governors-elect have transition teams. What about their cabinets?

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In this year’s elections, candidates in 36 states and three US territories are running to fill governor seats (Exhibit 1). The outcomes of those races will likely have a significant impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans, but the effectiveness of a state’s chief executive also hinges on others, especially the governor’s top team: cabinet officials and the chiefs of the state’s agencies and departments.

Despite the significance of their roles, however, cabinet appointees and other key officials seldom receive the degree of formal support for their transitions that is accorded to governor transitions. Though their work is central to delivering government services and achieving the administration’s strategic priorities, these officials too often start their new roles without a clear strategy. Therefore, the day-to-day demands of their job can quickly consume the time and energy needed to make progress on strategic objectives. That may be sufficient for “keeping the lights on” and reacting to situations as they develop, but these key decision makers may struggle to deliver transformative changes that meet the ever-evolving needs of the public they serve.

Thirty-six states and three US territories have gubernatorial elections this November, which will likely have a significant impact on lives of Americans.

This problem may be even more pressing considering that changes in gubernatorial leadership happen every four years in most states, but cabinet appointees and other key officials typically come and go more frequently and less predictably. But there are steps that could be taken to help bridge the transitions-support gap. Based on our work with state and local agencies and conversations with current and former officials, we’ve found that newly appointed cabinet leaders can take the reins and implement effective transition plans of their own to build a solid foundation for successful governing. And while the steps were developed for state leadership, our work indicates that they also could apply to city and county leaders.

More turnover, less support

During a typical term, appointed state leaders work on their own robust agendas, address emergent issues, and respond to current events, all while utilizing budgets that may have been set before they took office. They play core roles in ensuring their residents receive high-quality services, the government functions efficiently, and the governor’s agenda is implemented effectively.

But turnover is frequent. During an average year of a typical term in office, a governor may expect one or more transitions among cabinet members or other critical department heads. The average tenure of a state chief information officer (CIO) is 22 months, and the median tenure of a state chief administrative officer (CAO) is 30 months (Exhibit 2).1 In 2019 and 2020, 43 CIO transitions occurred in state governments.2 For state Medicaid directors, the average tenure prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was 24 months, and there is some evidence that average tenures have decreased since then.3 Turnover occurs for reasons both planned and unplanned, such as retirement, promotion, recruitment, election, or sometimes sudden resignations.

During an average year, governors may expect one or more transitions among cabinet members or other critical department heads.

Despite this relatively high turnover, little formal infrastructure exists to bridge incoming officials into their new leadership roles. This lack of support weakens the foundation for success. During transitions, change often begets change: new leaders reshuffle their teams, shift working groups or other cabinet structures, and bring in their own priorities. When transition planning doesn’t consider cabinet appointees and key officials, departments and agencies may lose focus, and productivity may dip. Then risks may develop, and issues may remain unresolved.

A well-executed transition, by contrast, could set the stage for genuine positive impacts. Agency and department officials could inject renewed energy, innovation, and operational efficiency. They could rejuvenate a state agency or department with a spirit of purpose and service.

Through our work and conversations, we’ve identified five steps that have helped newly tapped state leaders strategically manage their own transitions and quickly reach peak effectiveness in their leadership roles:

  1. Know the role and why you’re in it.
  2. Set three to five ambitious priorities.
  3. Know your allies and create more.
  4. Tell your change story.
  5. Make progress transparent while celebrating success.

Know the role and why you’re in it

The more senior a government role, the steeper the learning curve. Even experienced leaders may find that a new agency or function has its own unique collection of responsibilities. They often must navigate reams of regulations and an unfamiliar, complex matrix of stakeholders. The scale on which they are expected to operate is often substantial.

In the private sector, newly hired CEOs, COOs, and CFOs often start with robust fact-finding efforts. State leaders may want to consider taking a page from that playbook and learn about their department’s history, purview, financials, key performance indicators, performance track record, recent initiatives, and culture.

Former state officials we’ve talked to also found it helpful to ask a range of stakeholders how they view the role and what they believe is needed from a leader. These conversations helped these officials clarify both unspoken expectations and the context for running their agency or department.

While new officials often devote considerable attention to public and internal reports, the value of moving beyond paper to engage with people emerged as a recurring theme during our conversations with former state leaders. Every former official we spoke with told us that focusing on people—via strategic one-on-ones with the governor, listening tours with employees, briefings from trusted deputies, discussions with peers, casual interactions with employees on the front lines, and meetings with residents who are beneficiaries of state services—did more to deepen and refine their understanding of their organizations than anything else.

Multiple state chief administrative and operating officers said conversations with outgoing and past holders of their office were the most valuable, because no one better understands the nuances of a role than those who have lived it. One chief operating officer relished asking a simple but powerful question many times during her transition: “For what purpose?” In listening to the answers, she not only learned new information but also identified what had become habit rather than best practice, giving her the clarity to consider implementing change.

Set three to five ambitious priorities

Once leaders have a deep understanding of their role and the department they head, they are likely in a strong position to form and articulate a clear vision to rally their teams. A frequent starting point is to learn the agency’s existing mission and purpose statements. Leaders can then mull over their own interpretations to create their personal vision. They might ask themselves, “What big things do I want to accomplish in my time here? How do I want the organization to evolve? What do I want my legacy to be? How can we have a positive impact on the residents of our state?”

Since little in government happens in a vacuum, it may help to calibrate these ideas to the operating environment: How do they fit with the governor’s priorities, a department’s budget size and flexibility, the state legislature and oversight bodies’ priorities, and the leader’s own limited time in office? Balancing these considerations need not force leaders to be overly constrained or stagnant in articulating their vision. In our work with hundreds of public-sector executives, we have seen time and again that innovation stems directly from a finite list of strategic priorities and a tight focus on making and measuring progress.

Leaders who lay out three to five priorities are more likely to achieve their goals than are those who develop a long to-do list.

We have observed that leaders who lay out three to five priorities are also more likely to achieve their goals than are those who develop a long to-do list. Three, four, or five priorities are enough to inspire excitement but not so many that they overwhelm.

Know your allies and create more

A single leader rarely achieves anything alone, especially in government. Individual leaders must often negotiate a complex landscape of internal and external stakeholders who can be allies or adversaries on the road to success.

Engaging these stakeholders early and often could increase understanding of who they are and what they want. New leaders could benefit from being straightforward and enthusiastic during these interactions. While not discounting their own intuition and knowledge, they could be curious and open to the other person’s rich insights and experience, understanding that a stakeholder’s goals will seldom be wholly at odds with theirs.

During our research, we heard from a leader who took over a state agency in crisis with a mandate from the governor to turn it around in six months. The leader called each of their stakeholders to ask for individual help, starting with, “I’m new here. Can you help me by sharing the issues you see?” In doing this, the leader simultaneously built goodwill, crowdsourced ideas, and zeroed in on areas of agreement and misalignment. Once a draft plan for the path ahead was ready, the leader circled back to each stakeholder, seeking assistance in refining it. By sharing an early vision for input and alignment, this leader honed the agency’s goals while securing allies.

Tell your change story

Once new leaders understand their role, goals, and allies, they can prepare to launch in earnest. But before the actual launch, they need to take a critical step that in our experience is often neglected: getting teams motivated and aligned for a shift in the overall culture of the agency or department.

This step is most successful when leaders tell an effective change story—a personalized communication in which leaders share what they want to happen, why they believe it’s important, and how it will benefit individuals, teams, the organization, and the state. Change is possible when people understand and support what success looks like, and a story clarifies what needs to transform to achieve the desired future state. When leaders deprioritize this aspect of change management, plans tend to be hobbled. Our McKinsey Global Survey from 2021 demonstrated that leaders contribute most to a transformation in the eyes of their employees when they articulate a change story and communicate it actively.

A change story is a powerful tool we’ve seen in action. Taking the time to craft a change story, practice sharing it, get input and revise it where needed, and then launch it thoughtfully can yield dramatic results. Even in the most complex organizations, change stories have gone a long way toward building support and tearing down resistance. Our research shows that senior leaders who align with their teams on their change story and share it with the organization can increase the odds of the transformation’s success six times over.

Rather than simply existing on paper or in a few communication blasts, the change story could become the foundation of all organizational communication and a regular touchstone in all forums. One former state COO spent every day for several months eating lunch at the cafeterias across his various departments, talking to any frontline employees who came to sit with him. “At the beginning,” he said, “I sat alone a lot. But over time, people started to come by, and then they asked questions and shared input, and then I was able to share my plans and hear their feedback. That was so much more impactful than sending some big email to everyone.”

By sharing what team members can expect and, crucially, what they are expected to do in response, leaders could help establish a “North Star” to align change initiatives and keep the whole team on track.

Make progress transparent while celebrating success

Government leaders are typically expected to propose a strategic vision and start working toward it during their first 100 days on the job. Dedicating a team to sequence activities and outcomes effectively and to make progress transparent could play a crucial role during this time.

One former state chief administrative officer said the best advice he received when thinking about how to move his agenda forward was to be cognizant of the tide against which he was pushing. The message was, “There’s a very strong lobby for the status quo.” To catalyze wider technological change in his state government, the CAO focused first on piloting one robotic process automation that saved 80 hours of rote human work per week. Once the wider organization saw that two full-time government employees could reallocate their time to more energizing, value-added activities, “it was like a light bulb went off,” said the CAO, and more opportunities flowed.

For state leaders, identifying and tracking a mixture of short-term quick wins coupled with long-term transformational goals could help strike a balance between achieving goals and creating opportunities to celebrate progress, while chipping away at the big rocks impeding movement toward realizing the driving vision. New leaders and their teams could carefully plot activities and milestones over their first 30, 60, 90, and 180 days to maintain this balance. Leaders could then build an execution engine with a set cadence of checkpoints to highlight advances as they happen. Creating organization-wide transparency around key metrics that measure progress, embedding structures for accountability in delivery, and renewing efforts continuously may help further advance change.

Establishing this rigorous approach to the execution of a strategic vision could also drive transparency and awareness around challenges as they arise, allowing problems to be dealt with more urgently and effectively.

Though state leaders new to their jobs will likely not enjoy the luxury of taking each of these five steps in perfect sequence, they probably will be able to apply the principles in some form. A flexible alternative would be to harness them fluidly and revisit them as necessary to help lay the groundwork for successful government transformations.

Serving well is an admirable goal for any government leader but starting well can be daunting. A focus on these five steps could help new leaders make progress toward their ultimate goals and mobilize their organizations to achieve them.

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