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Advice to President Biden for turning his Cabinet into an effective team

Keith Ferrazzi & Eric Starklof

Advice to President Biden for turning his Cabinet into an effective team

Leadership & Teams
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7 MINUTE READ
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February 23, 2021

As he stood below the dome of the U.S. Capitol, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden called for unity in a place where just days before there was violence and insurrection.

While this was a rallying cry to the American people to come together, his message could equally have been a rallying cry for his Cabinet and advisers. Will this administration’s leaders rise to become the nation’s “First Team?”

The incoming Biden administration brings together an extraordinary level of governing experience. The president has convinced two former U.N. ambassadors and a former secretary of state to take on lesser roles, and likewise there has never been a Treasury secretary who has already served as chair of the Federal Reserve. This president has 50 years’ worth of Washington, D.C., relationships, and he is putting them to use in building his team.

But in government, like in business, vast expertise and years of service can be both a blessing and a curse. New advisers and cabinet officials are handpicked based on academic or military backgrounds, policy, and political benefits to the president. Mastery of team leadership can easily be left wanting. Some may come with single-minded agendas. Others may even have succeeded thanks to their sharp elbows or tongues, their roguish reputations, and, in some, their cult of personality.

While these traits can catapult a leader to the top of an organization, they can actually be detrimental to the formation of evolved, high-impact teams. President Warren G. Harding’s Cabinet picks come to mind.

While Harding appointed a number of highly regarded personalities to his Cabinet, including Andrew Mellon (Treasury secretary) and Herbert Hoover (commerce secretary), the Cabinet was sullied by two disastrous appointees: Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall and Attorney General Harry Daugherty. They were later tried for corruption, and Fall was convicted.

The Harding Cabinet was never cohesive, and never a team. It was more a group of ill-matched department heads, a political board of directors who met occasionally for coffee. And, perhaps by association, Harding is regarded as among the worst American presidents of the 20th century.

Biden’s administration simply cannot achieve its economic, social, and diplomatic goals if the Cabinet is a team in name only. Members must proactively build and nurture a cohesive, highly functioning interdependent team at the top. This will require purposeful work. Too often in the private sector, and we know in government, teams just don’t work. Only 20% of executives believe their teams are reaching their full potential. An overwhelming majority, 72%, say they don’t think their peers engage collaboratively in the most important problems.

Each team member’s deep commitment to the mission at hand—and the delivery of their own extraordinary performance—is no longer enough. For the sake of innovating bolder and faster, it’s critical that team members today support one another. Success and performance need to serve the culture of the team and its mission. Wins are measured not individually or by department, but through collective agreement to cross the finish line together with no one left behind.

Because this new standard deviates from the traditional hierarchies and silos most companies and certainly government are mired in, our communication of this idea merited a new term: co-elevation.

Co-elevation might sound like jargon-y business talk, but we know it works, and frankly, it’s necessary. In business today, our biggest challenge is keeping up with the rate of change itself. Out of nowhere, new threats continue to emerge, shaking our industries and decimating preestablished rules.

Co-elevated teams are bold and more innovative. They generate useful ideas faster with broader inputs from multiple sources by combining diverse points of view, even stronger when the ideas are opposing. Leapfrog solutions come quickly with inputs from many rather than one mind alone.

CANDOR COUNTS

How can Biden and Ron Klain, his White House chief of staff, build a co-elevating extended Cabinet?

To start, the members need to officially and consciously focus on collective action as opposed to autocratic directives. There’s no room for cowardly back-channel chatter. (Do this in business and watch trust dissolve among stakeholders and see innovation nose-dive.) As Chris Whipple explained in The Gatekeepers, his 2017 book about White House chiefs of staff, it is critical to keep senior staff and Cabinet officials focused on shared goals.

Speak straight. Candor is critical, even when it is risky. Embrace the fear of conflict, engage, and claim it as a path to achieving brilliance. Here’s a better agreement for a team: Be willing to respectfully challenge one another openly if it’s in service of the mission and each person is performing to their highest capacity.

At National Instruments (NI), we once had a culture deeply rooted in indirect communication. The descriptor “passive-aggressive” comes to mind. Avoiding candid, straight, and courageous conversations slowed the company down. It held us back from the business transformations required to stay at our industry’s leading edge.

Now it’s a cultural mandate to put issues on the table for forthright discussion purposefully. Engaging candidly builds respect, psychological safety, and deeper bonds. By the team adopting this new habit, we’ve become bolder and more innovative. Candor is a simple but profound practice all teams should adopt.

BUILD A CULTURE OF INCLUSION

Most leaders don’t leverage one another as they should. They operate single-mindedly. Yet progress is made when people problem-solve jointly.

In the past, the founding fathers achieved a more perfect union with small cabinets that met to discuss public policy challenges, weighing in on each other’s portfolios. This is how the republic was achieved and created. That sort of collaboration is absent from modern administrations, to our nation’s loss.

Cabinet members often come in with their own portfolios, without much attention to the others. They largely stay in their lane and collaborate only if they must—and even then, they guard their territory fiercely. Take, for example, Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious protectiveness of his own prerogatives as defense secretary during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Unfortunately, the same behaviors exist in hypersuccessful fast-growth startups unless there is a great deal of purposeful intervention.

At NI, we instituted a practice where each month executives bring their most challenging issues to the table. Instead of standard report outs, the team stress tests their peers’ progress by identifying risks, proposing innovations, and offering support.

We once had a strong collaboration and consensus culture, but with similar organizational silos found in most large companies. Now we’ve upped our expectations. We’ve moved from collaboration to cocreation, where anyone in the company can seek support from any peer regardless of rank, years of experience, or specialty.

TEAMING OUT  

The ultimate goal of co-elevation is not just highly functioning teams, it’s an effective organization. To build a government that works for all Americans, the Biden Cabinet should try to further broaden its collaboration to the other branches of government, the opposing political party, and relevant outside organizations. We call this “teaming out,” and there’s precedent for this in politics: Ronald Reagan, a Republican president, and Tip O’Neill, a Democratic house speaker, were two adversaries who respected each other as appointed public servants. They did not always agree but found a way to put aside their clashes on policy for the sake of national unity. Their work together forged a united front that enabled the U.S. to accelerate the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Biden has started the process of “teaming out” already: When a group of Republican senators sought a middle ground on the current coronavirus negotiations, Biden quickly gave them a lengthy private audience. His first senior meeting with Congress was with Republicans who are looking to find a “middle path forward.” And while the chasm between Republicans and Democrats remains large, Senator Mitch McConnell, now the minority leader, has worked to ensure quick confirmation of most of Biden’s Cabinet nominees.

At NI, we extended cocreation to include stakeholders beyond our company. Our partners, customers, and community are included in direct and deliberate ways in our innovation and selling processes. Our executives are expected to build diverse relationships externally to team out, and to bring this insight back to the team.

A truly co-elevated administration would be cohesive, fresh, and new. Competing priorities and political infighting would be replaced with the healthy wrestling of policy broadly and with an intention to listen and achieve innovation not possible with traditional narrow policy setting.

It is time to truly aim and put into practice from the top down those behaviors that can start to reverse fragmented political infighting.

Let’s honor the melting pot we are by embracing our differences and cocreating a more fantastic future with them.

Keith Ferrazzi is chairman of Ferrazzi Greenlight. Eric Starkloff is CEO of NI.

Leadership & Teams
|
7 MINUTE READ
|
February 23, 2021