Leading Through Transitions

By Todd Rosenblum

Transitions from one leader to the next are exciting and fearful. They are certainly exciting for the incoming political appointee leadership team. They can be exciting for career civil servants, but there is also an element of fear of the unknown. Both sides need to plan for and work at shared success.


Political appointees, whether they are returning after prior executive branch experience, or entering public service for the first time, come in with vision for change and aligning the bureaucracy to the priorities of the new President. Career civil servants will have experienced transitions before and know that professional relationships will need to be built, new protocols, formats and procedures will be put in place, and more zero-based reviews will be on the horizon.


More than anything, this is period where political appointees and career civil servants need to build rapport and trust. Political appointees need to be extra attentive to demonstrating respect for the apolitical capabilities and institutional knowledge of career civil servants. Political appointees should build camaraderie with the people they are given temporary authority to lead. Political appointees should hold town halls to introduce themselves, their vision and priorities. They should “walk the halls” and get to know their people. Career civil servants should respect that incoming political appointees have been selected to lead their organization and that the appointees’ success is the organization’s success.


Both political appointees and career civil servants play vital, interlocking roles during transitions and throughout current and future Administrations. Good political appointees know they are responsible for having strong peer, superior and staff relationships. Career civil servants owe it to political appointees to be creative, receptive, conveyers of historical approaches, knowledgeable of intended and unintended consequences of varying courses of action, and toknow when to ask their political appointee to break logjams and advance policy goals.  


Change management is an essential component of mastering transitions from one Administration to the next. Different stakeholders have different roles, responsibilities and prisms. Early steps toward harmonization are a win for all sides.  

Todd Rosenblum formerly served as a Deputy Under Secretary for DHS Intelligence and Analysis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense atDODand a career Civil Servant at the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency.

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