How to — and how not to — fill high-level vacancies in an administration
Since that flickering neon sign in the West Wing says "vacancy," it’s probably worth doing a little thinking about the wrong ways and the right ways to make mid-term personnel moves. The rumors about who might replace Larry Summers have suggested (see the Wall Street Journal) that the president is making one classic error: focusing ...
Since that flickering neon sign in the West Wing says "vacancy," it's probably worth doing a little thinking about the wrong ways and the right ways to make mid-term personnel moves.
Since that flickering neon sign in the West Wing says "vacancy," it’s probably worth doing a little thinking about the wrong ways and the right ways to make mid-term personnel moves.
The rumors about who might replace Larry Summers have suggested (see the Wall Street Journal) that the president is making one classic error: focusing on specific traits rather than focusing on a specific person. It may well be that picking someone who is a woman and has business leadership experience is a good idea … but over-emphasizing one or two traits often leads to ignoring real deficiencies or people with special gifts. (Similarly, for example, making the same mistake in reverse, blocking lobbyists from jobs in the administration was not only stunningly hypocritical when hiring their employers or the people they lobbied was commonplace, but it deprived the administration of some talents they could really have used.)
Taking another seeming pattern of this White House, hiring from within — while sometimes the exact right thing to do (see below) and often a boost for team morale — also perpetuate problems that exist and quash changes that may be desirable. It ensures having candidates who know players and processes and who are known commodities, but the benefits shouldn’t be overestimated. New jobs change people, all new jobs have learning curves and sometimes fresh blood and/or special stature may be more important than minimizing the upheaval associated with a change.
In other words, the evidence from the few changes that have already been made within this administration (the new DNI, replacing McChrystal, replacing Orszag, replacing Romer, the buzz about the slot atop the NEC or who might replace Rahm Emanuel, etc.) has revealed worrisome personnel predispositions. With all the changes likely to come, those predispositions could significantly weaken the administration. Alternatively, learning the lessons of mid-term replacements past might well help Obama 2.0 be full of the kind of big, positive changes we all can believe in.
Let’s look at the past few presidencies and see if there aren’t some useful lessons related to a handful of midterm hires that have been successful:
- Wherever possible trade up
If a president can upgrade the occupant of the job, clearly that’s where he should start. George W. Bush sent a strong message that he was seriously trying to change course when he moved from John Snow at Treasury to Hank Paulson or from Donald Rumsfeld to Bob Gates. Similarly, the markets saw the move from the accomplished but very Washington-oriented Lloyd Bentsen to Bob Rubin in the Clinton Treasury as a strengthened commitment to their concerns. And back in the day, as with Paulson, hiring from the executive suite at Goldman Sachs added luster to an appointment. While Les Aspin’s early departure from the Clinton cabinet might have been unsettling, his replacement by his highly respected deputy William Perry was widely and almost immediately seen as an improvement. In the same way, Ronald Reagan’s replacement of Alexander Haig with the proven, estimable George Schultz was seen as a major move toward stabilizing his State Department.
- Wherever possible hire experience
Experience at the cabinet level, experience with the problems being faced, experience running a major enterprise, the more experience the better. Paulson, Gates, Rubin, Perry, and Schultz were all seen as proven players who immediately won confidence. Condi Rice, whatever critics she may have had, brought a deep, long-standing relationship with the president and the other members of the national security team to the State Department when she took over. Experience is why hiring former cabinet members or high level officials like Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, James Baker, or Edmund Muskie immediately generated supported during the mid-term changes in which they participated. This is also why hiring deputies to fill their former boss’ jobs can make sense…but the Peter Principle needs to be remembered. The fact is that not all good deputies make good principals.
- Wherever possible hire people who send a clear message
All hires all send a message, intentional or otherwise. Picking former Wall Street leaders sends a message you care about markets. If Warren Christopher was grey, Madeleine Albright was anything but…sending a message of new vitality at State (underscored because she was the first woman in the job.) When Larry Summers was picked to replace Bob Rubin the message was Rubinomics would live on. ice going to State after Powell who seemed estranged from the president by the time he left, sent a message that the department would reconnect with the White House. When George H.W. Bush hired his close associate, friend and former Secretary of State and former Treasury Secretary James Baker as White House Chief of Staff it sent a message that he was going with the A-team … it also inadvertently sent a message that he needed a special kind of help politically which suggests that sometimes, high profile appointments carry multiple messages.
- Wherever possible hire people who already have key relationships
Rice had her relationship with Bush in place. Sandy Berger, an example of a deputy who became a terrific principal, was known to be closer to Clinton than Tony Lake. Steve Hadley had strong ties with the entire national security team. When Gates was appointed CIA director, he had already established close ties with Bush and within the agency. When Carlucci went to the Department of Defense under Reagan, his former deputy Colin Powell became national security advisor and already had the critical ties in place he would need.
- Wherever possible learn from your mistakes
If Reagan’s troika running the White House didn’t work, going to a more traditional structure sent a message that he understood. If Weinberger constantly fought with Schultz, Carlucci sent the message that a more conciliatory era was expected. When Ron Brown died, sending former campaign chairman Mickey Kantor said that Commerce was still important to Clinton. If Powell was seen as out of the loop, Condi Rice could not have been more inside it.
- Wherever possible hire fresh perspectives
Gates was experienced but a big change of pace from Rumsfeld … deliberately. Snow was a bland cipher but Paulson was powerful and fresh from the hottest shop on Wall Street. Ben Bernanke was seen as a new generation’s creative mind in place of departing central bank guru Alan Greenspan. Carlucci and Powell brought a desire to remake the NSC when they replaced the failed (and sometimes indicted) previous regimes of the Reagan years.
Obviously, not every case is the same. Not every case requires all the above guidelines be followed. Some jobs require more CEO-like skills…like the heads of cabinet departments. But jobs running White House councils require a very different sort of honest broker and staff support work skills. There are also plenty of examples of replacements that added nothing or were setbacks that the president also might want to study before he undertakes the coming wholesale changes. Stellar examples that almost certainly don’t come to mind include: William Bennett to Lauro Cavazos, Margaret Heckler to Otis Bowen, John Block to Richard Lying, Robert Mosbacher to Barbara Franklin, or, more recently and ign
ominously, John Ashcroft to Alberto Gonzalez.
Given the scope of the departures on the horizon, it is quite possible that this president who promised change may ultimately be judged based on the quality of the changes he makes in his own team. For that reason, spending a little time studying just what has worked and what has not in the past may be worthwhile … and if nothing else it will prove usefully humbling as it starkly reminds us how quickly we forget the people that hold jobs that seemed at the moment to be the most powerful and important in the land.
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