I led the Biden presidential transition. Its leadership lessons can apply to any organization

Former Sen. Ted Kaufman discusses the leadership lessons to be gleaned from Joe Biden’s presidential transition.
Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Amid a global pandemic, a presidential election, and an economic crisis, Joe Biden asked me to begin planning a presidential transition that could meet the historic challenges and opportunities of the moment. Authoring the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010, I knew the challenge this would be. 

Together with Mark Gitenstein, who became a founding member of the transition advisory board, I enlisted Jeff Zients as one of five cochairs and Yohannes Abraham as executive director to lead the Biden-Harris transition. Zients and Abraham oversaw day-to-day operations, bringing together their prior experience with government, management, and leading large organizational change.

The team we built—almost entirely remotely—was responsible for guiding and implementing one of the most ambitious and productive presidential transitions in history. A short-term process to plan for running the U.S. government, a transition holds broader leadership and management lessons that can be applied to any organization.

Culture always matters

From the outset, we focused on establishing values and processes to bind together a diverse and rapidly growing team under the extraordinary set of circumstances of the global pandemic and the unpredictable nature of the sitting administration. We understood that, even with a limited time frame to operate, devoting the time and energy to build and then cultivate an organizational culture that could unify and inspire thousands of staff and volunteers was worth the investment.

To bring to life the values and organizational culture we envisioned, we established standards that started the moment any of the roughly 1,500 staff or volunteers joined the team. From intern to cabinet nominee, each went through onboarding on mission, values, ethics, cybersecurity, employee expectations, and the background of Biden’s campaign promises and priorities. 

The values were simple: Remember who we represent; remember the stakes; be a team player; the transition does not make news, the campaign does. These values were emphasized in training and in the way the leaders conducted their work. 

Embrace and enforce a security-first mindset

On the heels of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, most notably its cyberattacks against the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Biden-Harris transition knew effectively securing the organization’s network, devices, and data from foreign interference would be essential. From the beginning, the transition prioritized a more robust digital environment than transitions past. Analyzing the specific security and collaboration needs, IT leadership selected platforms and systems that prioritized security and organizational agility in a nearly all-digital environment.

The Biden-Harris transition took additional steps to address cybersecurity risks. The team conducted a rigorous evaluation of its cybersecurity gaps and contracted with outside experts. Among others, the team established a partnership with an IT support and security organization to share threat information and support mitigation efforts. The transition also recognized that threats from within—namely, compromised personal accounts of staff and volunteers—could pose a risk. In response, the transition instituted a robust personal account security program offered to everyone to protect their digital footprint.

Metrics, metrics, metrics

Recognizing that tracking performance is often something startups use to evaluate their work, transition leadership made a deliberate decision to develop metrics early and review them frequently. This enabled the development of ambitious targets and corresponding metrics that were baked in from the start.

These goals included hiring administration personnel on a scale never achieved previously while reflecting a greater degree of diversity, and developing a large set of policy actions for the new President to deliver in his first weeks. The front office included a planning component that created detailed benchmarks and dashboards to measure weekly progress.

The results are record-breaking: President Biden swore in 1,136 appointees on Jan. 20 (more than the last two administrations in their first 100 days combined), as well as the most diverse cabinet and set of appointees in history. The President signed over 30 executive actions in his first three weeks and released two major legislative proposals on COVID relief and immigration. The 15 members of the cabinet were confirmed in the shortest period of time since Ronald Reagan was President.

Make the mission your North Star

From the outset, it was clear this transition would be unlike any other. Therefore, keeping the team united and focused on key priorities was of paramount importance.

The composition and short-term nature of a presidential transition is unique relative to other organizations, but faces the same people, process, and technology challenges that startups and other companies undergoing rapid growth may see. These takeaways illustrate some of the many important lessons learned. 

By prioritizing culture, embracing cybersecurity, rigorously tracking performance, and remaining steadfastly focused on the core mission, organizations of all stripes and sizes can position themselves for success.

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. senator from Delaware.

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