How Will Trump Build His Leadership Team?

In the corporate and political worlds, great journeys do not start with a brilliant strategy, but rather with a visionary leader putting together an extraordinary team with complementary skill sets. Two top recruiters tell us how the new president might get it done.

February 2, 2017 – Exceptional times require exceptional leadership teams. Now that the presidential election is over, two top recruiters say the key to ‘making America great again’ is laying out a strategic series of presidential appointments. And that begs this important question: How does the new administration plan to build a massive leadership team of more than 4,000 appointees?

It is certainly a challenging situation. Egon Zehnder search consultants Claudio Fernández-Aráoz and Neil M. Hindle suggest that by carefully adapting the definitive best practices for recruiting to the special circumstances presidential appointment teams face every four to eight years, a scalable, proven blueprint exists to complete the task.

Every year, Egon Zehnder supports hundreds of search assignments in the public sector, including work before the election with the ‘Partnership for Public Service,’ to analyze more than 100 of the most critical upcoming presidential appointments, interview incumbents and develop  job specs for upcoming appointments.

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The firm supplements this work with its own research, interviewing dozens of senior public leaders to identify the frequent pitfalls in past appointments, while looking at areas for improvement in the appointment process. The entirety of Egon Zehnder’s findings points to several concrete benchmarks for making sound selections.

Look Both Inside and Out

Research shows that when significant change is needed, outsiders usually do a better job, while for gradual change it is typically the insiders who perform better. As individual candidate quality varies, the best practice is to look both inside and out, with no particular biases, giving every candidate an equal chance.

Overall, say the consultants, it is imperative to avoid the natural biases we are all hardwired with, such as choosing those similar and familiar to us, with whom we feel comfortable. For building highly effective teams, they note, we need complementary skills, which are the opposite of similarity and familiarity, and we also need to properly challenge each other, which is not comfortable.

Properly Assess Candidate Potential

Jobs now change so rapidly that few can predict the competencies needed to succeed even a few years out. Complicating this, the need to adapt will be huge for those joining the Trump administration from outside of government.

A candidate’s capacity to grow and adapt to fundamentally different and increasingly complex responsibilities is critical and should be measured by assessing four traits: curiosity, insight, engagement and determination.

Is the candidate someone who seeks new experiences, ideas, knowledge and self-awareness, who solicits feedback and who stays open to learning and change? Is he or she someone able to gather and make sense of new information and to use his or her insights to shift legacy views and set new directions? Can this person connect on an emotional level with others, demonstrate empathy, communicate a persuasive vision and inspire commitment to the broader organization? Finally, is the person capable of persisting in the face of difficulties and bouncing back from major setbacks or adversity?

Possibly most importantly, can he or she successfully balance short term gains with long term priorities? While the new administration can and should appoint some great fighters to extinguish the most urgent fires, the search firm’s consultants believe it should also choose strategists to start drafting the finest cadre of future public leaders.

Great Public Leaders Need to be Masters at Influencing and Collaboration Skills 

Whenever we generally help to make people decisions, we tend to place more weight on ‘hard’ factors (such as experience and educational background), when it has been clearly demonstrated that it is the ‘soft’ competencies, based on emotional and social intelligence, which distinguish the best leaders, say Messrs. Fernández-Aráoz and Hindle. The complex governance and diffuse power structures in the public sector demands a different form of leadership from that of a private sector CEO. Great public leadership usually demands a superb mix of persuasion, political currency, and shared interest to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen.

Understanding the Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts 

Often new administrations seek out ‘big names’ to fill key appointee positions that oversee huge budgets, thousands of employees and complex systems (e.g. Veterans Affairs, GSA, HHS, DHS, etc.). The focus here should be on building teams that incorporate a proper mix of executive, functional and policy expertise amongst the leadership – with the goal being to achieve collective excellence versus individual excellence.

This team-building exercise will be crucial to the overall success of the new administration. Based on Egon Zehnder’s 50 years of practice and research, the firm says that team effectiveness explains perhaps 80 percent of leaders’ success. All effective teams rate high on six fundamental dimensions: balance, alignment, energy, openness, efficiency and resilience – and depending on the specific team’s challenge, some dimensions are more crucial than others.

It’s Not the ‘How’ or the ‘What’ but the ‘Who’

In the corporate and political worlds, great journeys do not start with a brilliant strategy, but rather with a visionary leader putting together an extraordinary team with complementary skillsets. The leader will call upon this team to help devise the right plans and properly adjust when needed – but most importantly, this team will be integral in successfully implementing forward-thinking strategies that will benefit the greater good.

At the core, the leader needs to be able to make good people decisions, understanding how to unlock the best ideas and potential from people in a changing society and world. In a role that is already limited to four or eight years, visionary leaders need a team capable of both solving for immediate and long-term needs, and considering alternative perspectives.

Egon Zehnder looked at lessons learned from previous presidents who led the country during challenging times. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are considered by most rankings to be the best two presidents in U.S. history. Both of them were in their time highly politically inexperienced, however they proved to be successful in part by leading exceptional teams, including Lincoln’s famed team of rivals.

The current presidential transition team has the opportunity to incorporate and properly adapt these best practices to assemble a highly diverse team that could bring positive change to the country. While it’s imperative to get it right, only time will tell if they succeed.


About the Recruiters

Mr. Fernández-Aráoz, based in Buenos Aires, is a senior adviser of Egon Zehnder and was a member of its global executive committee for more than 10 years. He founded the firm’s management appraisal practice and served as global leader of its professional development, people processes, and intellectual capital development services. He is a top global expert on talent and leadership.

Mr. Hindle, based in New York and Washington, D.C., co-leads Egon Zehnder’s public and social sector segment globally. He is accomplished in appointing and assessing senior leadership for the public and social sector, working closely with intergovernmental development organizations, NGOs, industry associations, academic institutions, and regulatory bodies. He is also experienced in risk management and quantitative analytics, and frequently conducts executive search for financial services clients. Mr. Hindle provides board consulting, CEO search and accelerated integration support to transitioning leaders.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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