Getting grounded after a transition

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Entering a federal agency for the first time as an appointed manager — if you don’t think it’s daunting, then you aren’t awake. But there are some specific tips that can make getting oriented and becoming effective help you. Someone who has been there done that — a former Office of Management and Budget controller, and also acting IRS commissioner — is now with Boston Consulting Group. Daniel Werfel joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin  for more insight.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Danny, good to have you back.

Daniel Werfel: Hello, Tom.

Tom Temin: So you had a couple of different types of jobs, and I would say probably moving into the IRS when there was a crisis of leadership there and needed stabilizing, almost like coming in as new because that wasn’t your main experience. What is your best advice for people coming into the Biden administration. We know who the Cabinet secretaries are, most of them have been around before, but you get deeper into that Plum Book and it could be bewildering.

Daniel Werfel: Yeah, I have this memory, I think I was asked and agreed to go to the IRS on, let’s say, a Wednesday, and I wasn’t going to show up till the following Tuesday. So I had a weekend to get ready. And I have this memory of sitting in my dining room, surrounded by binders and congressional reports all about the IRS. And I studied, like I was taking an exam. And I learned the organization, I learned the acronyms. One of my main goals was to go in there and demonstrate to the workforce immediately that I understood the basics. I wanted to limit the number of dumb questions that I asked that I could control. So that tip number one is – there’s nothing wrong with studying and being prepared and really having a good sense of what the organization structure is, its mission, its budget, its workforce, its regions. I went in and studied as hard as I could.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so you want to come in with a little street cred, in other words?

Daniel Werfel: Yes, so that if an acronym is used, or there’s a conversation about a particular part of the organization, you have some familiarity. And I think the organization respects that you’ve studied them. And, and it’s interesting, I mean, it’s actually inspiring to learn about the organization that you’re going to be involved in, its history, its mission, its purpose, in reading through all these materials. It’s motivating, and that’s part of the journey that you should enjoy in your public service.

Tom Temin: And I imagine one of the learnings that most people have coming in is that the career staff, for the most part has a lot of pride in what they do.

Daniel Werfel: Nothing more important that I would tell someone going in as a political appointee than the lesson is to embrace the civil servants that are there. They are there to serve the mission of the organization. They’re there to help you in your leadership, and help you set and achieve your priorities. And if you isolate yourself in any way from the civil servant leaders and civil servant workforce, you are in for a much tougher journey. And I think your success will be in doubt. Whereas if you embrace the civil servants, put them on your leadership team, rely on them and trust in them, then you’ve increased your likelihood of success 100 fold.

Tom Temin: And we’ve got this 100-day orientation, I guess it goes back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. And even the BCG, your own company’s advice, talks about how agency heads can make the first 100 days count. But is that kind of an artificial barrier to maybe more thoughtful approaches that, if you took 200 days, you might maybe get a deeper and more thorough type of setup going?

Daniel Werfel: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there’s, there is nothing magic about day 99 versus day 101. as you point out. The concept, I think, is to understand that in the early stage of your arrival, there are certain things that you should be doing and focusing to make sure that you’re off to a strong start with good momentum, that you’re establishing behaviors that you want in your leadership office, that are going to lead to your success. And you don’t want to waste those days. You want to get to work right away. So in getting ready for the 100 days, as I mentioned with me with my binders at the dining room table, it’s like prep, value the time that you have right before you arrive. But then once you arrive, I think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned of things that you can do in those first days, whether it’s 100 days, or 150 days or 50 days, that can have really high return in terms of a setting priorities, developing relationships with key people reaching out to key stakeholders in and around your organization, talking to people listening, which is really important and an under appreciated leadership skill, giving a lot of listening, that’s going to set the tone for your journey. And that’s the point of the 100 days. It’s “don’t waste really critical time and certain things that can have high impact in those early days.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Danny Werfel, managing director at the Boston Consulting Group. And just out of curiosity, and I cite the IRS again, because it has a highly unionized – a large percentage of the workforce is in the National Treasury Employees Union – how much do you deal with those employees as union members, versus dealing with them as employees? Can you use the union not to be so much an impediment or a barrier between you and those employees, but somehow use it to get closer to them?

Daniel Werfel: Absolutely. I mean, so the IRS, as an example, has 90,000 employees, and roughly two-thirds of them are a part of the Union. I mentioned early, reaching out to stakeholders and listening to them. And the leadership of the NTEU is one such stakeholder, maybe one of the more important ones. And I would think that if you’re going to an organization that has unionized employees, reach out to them. Listen, meet with them, don’t dictate your terms, listen to what they have to say. They want to be successful with you and go on the journey and help you as well. And I think in particular, I think if I understand President Biden’s priorities, it is to embrace organized labor, as part of the journey and part of the solution in terms of improving employee engagement. Talent and workforce issues are so critical. And we could have a whole separate show, Tom, about where we are in terms of the government workforce, in terms of retirements and morale and engagement and working remotely. It’s going to be so critical to the success of this administration, to empower the workforce to achieve all the critical objectives that the Biden administration has. And you can make a choice: You can either try to work against the unions or work with them. And I would choose to work with them, because I think they can help you unlock the potential of the workforce.

Tom Temin: But on the other hand, one was appointed to carry out a specific set of priorities and agendas that the administration that appointed you wants to pursue, and not everyone is going to agree with them or agree with the approach. So how do you kind of subtly transition from being the newbie and the listener and the accommodator and the empowerer to – you do have a job to do there for the administration, and you may have less than two years to do it.

Daniel Werfel: Yeah, I don’t see any reason why you can’t rapidly and collectively collaborate on your priorities. You know, since you brought up the IRS, the IRS’ mission is to help taxpayers meet their obligation under the code, and to run a successful tax system for the US government. And that’s the true north. And I think there’s a huge opportunity zone to work with unions and the workforce more broadly, and other stakeholders on what are the key priorities to achieve that mission and achieve that true north. And there might be some disagreements on where the focus points should be. But overall, I have a high degree of confidence in each of these federal agencies, that you could work together to rapidly hit a set of priorities that not everyone’s going to think they’re perfect, but everyone can get behind.

Tom Temin: And then the other issue, I guess, at a more practical level, is that as you as the appointee onboard, everybody else’s teleworking for the most part. I mean, few people are trickling back. But that must be a tough one to overcome. I looked at the video of Antony Blinken’s first day at the State Department, and there were some employees in the room, but mostly they were watching – he was speaking mainly to an empty room. That’s got to be a tough thing to get around when when you’d like to really sit down and look someone in the eye directly.

Daniel Werfel: Yeah, I mean, that’s something I’ve never experienced. And I don’t think any of these leaders have. It seems extraordinarily challenging, but all the more important to figure out how to use remote technologies to connect with people, to affiliate with them. I mean, the sooner the better to get people back because, to me, my favorite part of the job, whether it was when I was leading the IRS, or when I was – held leadership positions at OMB – is engaging with people and collaborating with them and developing relationships with them and being in the foxhole, so to speak, together. Now can you be in a foxhole on Zoom or Microsoft Teams? Sure, you can, it’s different. But I think the sooner we can get people co-located the better.

Tom Temin: And as acting commissioner, did you ever just decide to shell out of your own wallet and buy a dozen bagels for the staff for one morning?

Daniel Werfel: Yes, I mean, that’s, you know, things like that are can be really important. And like going to the cafeteria – can’t do that now but going to the cafeteria, sitting down at a table talking to people. It’s funny that you mentioned bagels, I once put a lunch together at OMB, to give back and to do an affiliation thing and I brought bagels and I got a lot of heat for that. Bagels aren’t lunch I was told. So that was a big lesson that I learned. So here’s another lesson for incoming administration officials: If you’re going to provide lunch, apparently bagels are breakfast, not lunch.

Tom Temin: Well, unless you have a platter of smoked sable to go –

Daniel Werfel: That’s what I did. I really I had to enhance the meat selection and the cheese selection in order to overcome the big of that –

Tom Temin: Protein and fat in there and make it something that’s rib-sticking. Danny Werfel is managing director at the Boston Consulting Group, former federal official. As always, thanks so much.

Daniel Werfel: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to more advice at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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