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The leadership role of the Cabinet secretary and deputy secretary

By Finn Camper | March 18, 2021

Cabinet secretaries and deputy secretaries play a key role in supporting the policy and legislative agenda of a new administration. Cabinet secretaries advise the president on agency matters, oversee policy and serve as the public face of an agency. Deputy secretaries lead high-profile initiatives, act as the secretary’s alter ego and manage critical support functions as the agency’s chief operating officer.  

Together, these two leaders must move quickly and effectively to fulfill the president’s campaign promises, forge relationships with key stakeholders, develop a vision for their department and build the right team to implement it. Informed by insights from management experts and former senior federal leaders, the Center for Presidential Transition has refreshed several guides which outline a set of best practices for new secretaries and deputy secretaries to follow when they take office. Below are five key insights from those guides. 

  1. Get to know the agency and make connections. To earn support from staff who carry out key programs and policies, secretaries and deputy secretaries should learn about their agency’s core business practices, structure and operations. The virtual work environment enables agency leaders to connect with staff in regional and local field offices who can offer diverse perspectives on the agency’s impact across the country. 
  1. Build trust and rapport with career leaders. Many career officials serve in critical leadership positions while new agency leaders await Senate confirmation. A new secretary and deputy secretary will rely heavily on the expertise of civil servants to respond to immediate challenges, and shape and implement critical policy, such as new coronavirus relief legislation.  
  1. Meet with stakeholders. To advance the department’s priorities and mission, secretaries and deputy secretaries must work effectively with key decision-makers across the organization, their peers in other agencies, the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and Congress. They also need to build relationships with internal stakeholders like employee organizations, and those in the private and nonprofit sectors who may be affected by or offer insight into the agency’s work. 
  1. Find and celebrate quick wins. Several projects and programs that are consistent with the new administration’s policies may be near completion—or at a critical stage in their development—when new secretaries or deputy secretaries take office. They can create momentum for their agenda and build support among key stakeholders and staff by helping to push these initiatives across the finish line.  
  1. Define what success looks like. The secretary and deputy secretary can set a positive tone from day one and cultivate a culture of success by setting clear standards, promoting cooperation across the department, outlining clear deliverables and helping employees understand their roles. Early in a new administration, thousands of civil servants and acting appointees look to the new agency heads for guidance and leadership. The secretary and deputy secretary should build an ambitious yet achievable agenda—and communicate it clearly. 

Read the updated guides for more best practices for new Cabinet secretaries and deputy secretaries.  

Finn Camper is a former intern on the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition team.