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bob gilson

President Trump and the Senior Executive Service

It appears that a lot of successful American businesspeople and some former high ranking military leaders will get a shot at running the American government in the next administration. President-Elect Donald Trump, thus far, has sent some signals in naming his proposed appointees. What are these signals and are we reading them right?

By Bob Gilson

Former Military Officers

Those Agencies about to be directed by former military officers are dealing, generally, with known quantities.  General and Flag officers have usually had extensive exposure to both career and non-career members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) unless engaged in intelligence work while in high level jobs. (The Defense Intelligence and National Security Agencies along with FBI and CIA are excluded by law from having SES appointees. See 5 USC 3132(a)(1)(B).)  The very last thing I’m implying is that Generals and Admirals can be type cast to role.  But their former positions required them to interact with a workforce increasingly characterized by both Federal civilian employees and contractors.  In many Agencies, federal employees and contractors interact as to be indivisible to all but Agency insiders.  I’ve been both a “Fed” and a contractor and on many occasions, couldn’t see a difference in the role I was expected to play.  Expect former military leaders to be comfortable dealing with contractors extensively.

All the senior military officers with whom I have interacted had one thing in common. They all had a short list including a very few, very important (at least to them), and very specific goals.  Most hated to be sidetracked with administrative chores.  A key difference between military and civilian training has to do with the concept of leadership.  Civilian SES members get a lot of management training on running organizations.  Military officer’s development at all levels focuses heavily on leading people.  The most stressed principle for the military leader is that he/she lead by example.  Expect a strong work ethic and a 24/7 involvement.  The military officers I’ve known believe they get paid by the year and all their activities whether work or social that relate to work go on until completed.  Also, expect a focus on delegating responsibility.  The most common questions I remember were “where do we stand on that?”: “what’s left to do?”; and, “do you need any help to get it done by…?”

Business People

The incoming President is a businessman, he’s has spent a life in business.  His father was a successful businessman. His wife is heavily involved in helping his business efforts succeed.  His children are expected to excel at business.  A lot of his nominees are successful business executives.  While each of these people are their own person with unique personalities and styles, is it possible to predict any patterns of managing we might expect to see?

I believe many people like working for government because they don’t believe they must sell anything.  salespeople are often looked down on by Feds at every level as somehow having jobs with less integrity, fewer scruples and is mere hype as compared to those holding positions they view as serving the people and the nation.  Think I’m kidding?  Make a joking reference to a salesman at work and see the agreement you get whether verbally or non-verbally.

All businesspeople sell something.  All businesspeople understand that success involves getting the target audience they are addressing to buy the goods or services they’re offering.  The rewards go to those that either directly or indirectly help raise the bottom line.  Arguably, American business in the last half century has adopted a philosophy involving a total focus on the customer i.e., find out what the customer wants and give it to them.  For many companies, this means that the organization should only do that. In other words, outsource the things we don’t have to do ourselves and focus on the company’s primary goal.  Outsourcing is likely to continue and grow.

People in big business move around much more than in government both within and between companies.  I knew someone who had a good job at IBM.  He said the initials stood for “I’ve been moved.”  With this in mind, SES members might want to reread 5 USC 3395 on reassignments and transfers within the SES.  This administration will include people at the top who are used to doing this. Get ready.

Successful business people pay careful attention to the concept of risk.  Risk, outside perhaps Defense or NASA, is not an idea one often associates with government.  Ray Kroc (founder of McDonalds) said “If you're not a risk taker, you should get the hell out of business.”  One might argue, I guess, that President-Elect Trump’s prospective appointees are doing exactly that but it would be a surprise if they came to government decision-making with a risk-averse strategy or would care to frequently hear one from their subordinates. 

I have a family member who is a fairly senior manager in a very well-known national company.  She has grown up in marketing and is stuck, often, explaining terms, common to her, to me.  When visiting, I’ll ask what a commercial is about and she’ll respond that I’m not the “target audience”.  I wonder but don’t ask “who the heck is?”  The most significant lessons from her that government executives might consider involve connectivity, planning and pitching.

She’s connected all the time.  Her work is group focused.  People communicate with little apparent attention to hierarchy.  She thinks nothing of answering or generating a text message at a break in a soccer match or, if important, during lunch or dinner.  What some might consider rude, she seems to consider as normal business.  I know a lot of very hard-working Federal executives but hers is another kind of availability all together.  The company expects it.

Much of her job involves developing plans and “pitching” them to higher levels and then helping those higher up to pitch the version of the plan they approved to those above them.  She is forever developing “decks”.  This, to my surprise and amazement, is a PowerPoint or similar presentation.  If she is any example, get ready to work on your deck in the next administration.  Microsoft will love these guys.

If her company is a standard, big business takes good care of performers with good salaries, benefits and a commitment to real performance bonuses, in some cases 30-50% of base pay.  Of course, a company must make money to spend money so there are leaner years.  The new leadership will likely look to improve executive incentives and expect you to earn them.

A big adjustment for incoming business executives will involve the degree of control they will have versus the private sector.  Congress micromanages, it’s what it does.  So does OMB and so too, any Agency protective of its own mission prerogatives. (Aren’t you proud of me, I didn’t say empire).  The measure of this administration might be the degree to which a business approach sparks better interagency deals, less congressional and OMB micromanagement, and a determination on what the “business” of a particular Agency might be.  Your thoughts on this would likely be welcomed.

President Trump

Despite the volumes written by him, for him or about him, many believe we really know very little about our incoming President.  I found a number of his quotes interesting if they were to be applied to governing:

“I have made the tough decisions, always with an eye toward the bottom line. Perhaps it's time America was run like a business.”

“It's always good to be underestimated.”

“Sometimes you need conflict in order to come up with a solution. Through weakness, oftentimes, you can't make the right sort of settlement, so I'm aggressive, but I also get things done, and in the end, everybody likes me.”


“What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate.”

“I have an attention span that's as long as it has to be.”

“I could never have imagined that firing 67 people on national television would actually make me more popular, especially with the younger generation.”

“Getting things done in this country, if you want to build something, if you want to start a company, it's getting to be virtually impossible with all of the bureaucracy and all of the approvals.”


“I've been dealing with politicians all my life. All my life. And I've always gotten them to do what I need them to do.”

“I've been making deals all my life.”


One thing I think we can all agree on is that is we’ve never had talk like this from any president in our lifetimes.  If half the above truly describe our next president, buckle up!


As always, the above represents my views and not necessarily those of the SEA. 


Bob is a Federal sector negotiator and trainer.  He can be reached at 757.621.3982 or


Bob Gilson is currently a Senior Associate with RGS Inc.  His specialty is working with and training Federal Agency clients to resolve employee problems at all levels.  Both before and since retiring, Bob has negotiated on behalf of Federal clients.  A retired Agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues.  He can be reached at

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Tags: election, Managers Corner

Ten Considerations For Civi Service Modernization

Summary: The Senior Executives Association (SEA) and the Hoover Institution hosted three Civil Service Modernization Dialogues in the summer and fall of 2018 that had a goal of developing a consensus around general themes and concepts that a diverse group of organizations could support. Those Dialogues were organized around three general themes:

  • Civil Service Workforce Modernization
  • Civil Service Administrative Modernization
  • Civil Service Regulatory Modernization
Read More

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