Volume 5: Fixing our broken government

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Lessons that CEOs can teach a new president

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  • Key Takeaways
  • Start with a vision of where you want to end up
  • Focus on the next three years, not the first 100 days
  • Surround yourself with diversity
  • Welcome thoughtful internal critics
  • Make tough personnel decisions early

By McKinsey & Company

This essay was compiled by Carolyn Dewar, Kunal Modi, Tom Dohrmann, Drew Erdmann, and Ryan Harper.

On January 20, 2017, the next President of the United States will become chief executive officer of some of the most powerful institutions in the world, including the White House, 15 executive departments, the U.S. military, and numerous other federal agencies.

While not all lessons from the private sector are transferrable to the public sector, and many successful business leaders find their skills challenged in the unique government environment, there are nevertheless lessons for this transition period that CEOs can offer the next president and other new senior leaders entering the government. 

Here are a dozen such lessons, drawn from McKinsey & Company’s work with public and private sector leaders globally and discussions with current and former CEOs of iconic companies who have undergone similar transitions. These lessons are broadly applicable to leaders transitioning into senior roles in the government, regardless of professional background. 

“Understanding the past is often the best way to diagnose the present to ensure future success.”

Establish your agenda—an overarching aspiration and a limited set of priorities 

Kevin Johnson, former CEO of Juniper Networks, stressed the importance of developing and prioritizing long-term goals fairly quickly.

President Franklin Roosevelt popularized the importance of success in the first 100 days. However, the next president should prepare for the next three years, not just the first 100 days.

Leonard Schaeffer, CEO of WellPoint, emphasized that a government leader must explain the organization to the world and the world to the organization.

“Despite the constraints of government, successful leaders must take risks and act as boldly as the operating environment will allow.”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued that it is important to include career staff in the inner circle and rely on their experience.

Build a team that will support and challenge you—and help you deliver 

“Surround yourself with people who will tell you hard truths.”
- Andrea Ayers

Define your personal operating model to manage the demands of your job over the long haul 

Warren Buffett cautioned that it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.

“A leader needs to ensure that government gets more doers.”
- John Thornton

The peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next is a reaffirmation of one of the great hallmarks of American democracy. It is a unique opportunity to chart a new course for the country—and the planning and preparation during the transition period can greatly improve a new administration’s ability to succeed. The 12 foregoing suggestions, based upon diverse leadership experience and spanning many different types of organizations, should help the next president and his or her senior leadership team define their path forward.

About the Author

Carolyn Dewar leads McKinsey’s Organization Practice’s senior executive transitions service line and is a partner in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, where Kunal Modi is a consultant; Tom Dohrmann, a senior partner, and Drew Erdmann, a partner, are leaders in McKinsey’s Public Sector Practice and are based in McKinsey’s Washington, DC office, where Ryan Harper is a consultant.

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