Welcome to the Herbert C. Hoover Building, Secretary Bryson – Your Staff Has Been Waiting

An Open Letter to Secretary of Commerce John Bryson by a Former Government Staffer

John Bryson is sworn in as Secretary of Commerce, 10/21/2011 (Photo from Commerce Department press release)

Author’s Note: This post was originally written for The Wagner Review and can also be found at: http://www.thewagnerreview.org/2011/11/welcome-to-the-herbert-hoover-building-secretary-bryson%E2%80%94your-staff-has-been-waiting/

The United States is in an economic coma, and newly sworn-in Secretary of Commerce John Bryson is charged with waking it up. President Obama’s economic agenda is running out of time. The economy needs fast action, and in order for Bryson to deliver any, his transition into office must be seamless. By taking swift action to retain top Commerce staffers, Secretary Bryson can avoid the common pitfalls of political transitions, rebuild the administration’s business relationships, and transform U.S. exports.

Secretary Bryson just won the most difficult job in the country—he has inherited a $7.5 billion budget, a nearly 50,000 strong workforce, and a $15 trillion economy that needs stimulating in a global economic depression. What’s even worse is that this responsibility comes in the context of a heated presidential reelection and a Congress that is arguably the most polarized, least productive in U.S. history.

Bryson’s immediate priority as a new leader should be to inject morale into senior staffers. He likely feels as if he was assigned a never-ending list of tasks before he even began, but the vast staff of the Office of the Secretary spent more than 226 days waiting for a new leader since Former Secretary Gary Locke first announced his plans to depart. The staff is mortal, and the long period of uncertainty has inevitably left Commerce employees fatigued, impatient, and unhappy. If Bryson sends the wrong signal about his plans for staff shakeups, his leadership abilities, or his vision for the agency, valuable staffers could bolt. Secretary Bryson should spend time during his first few weeks in office asking key team members about their individual goals. Doing so will alleviate their fears of layoffs and show that he thinks they’re worth getting to know.

Next step: communicate expectations. Few Americans know the true depth of the Commerce Department’s impact on the national economy. Secretary Bryson should be honest with his team—taking on the challenge of doubling U.S. exports by 2014 in the context of a badly-damaged Euro and a global recession will feel Sisyphean. In his role as a member of President Obama’s cabinet, Bryson must convey the views of the business community. Corporate citizens are struggling, and they are desperately reaching out for a life preserver. Criticism has been publicly and privately offered, and never more loudly than when billionaire Steve Wynn—a self-identified Democrat—called the administration, “the greatest wet blanket to business, progress and job creation in my lifetime.”

Bryson needs to quickly and clearly articulate his vision for the Department. His vision need not be complete, and nor should it be. Imposing his vision without soliciting input from the front lines will alienate his staff from the decision-making process and reduce his chances of retaining them. The employees of the Commerce Department want a candid, open-minded vision that begins to trace the outlines of where Bryson sees the Department heading and how his staff can get him there. Bureaucracies have short attention spans: the Secretary won’t have much time to win the trust of his people and get them working on his agenda.

One final tip: don’t badmouth the old boss. Secretary Bryson has been around the block enough to know this, but it’s worth revisiting. The old hands at Commerce were a part of Gary Locke’s legacy. Cavalierly criticizing Locke’s or another former administration’s ways of business, even where justified, will alienate the Secretary from legacy staff. Bryson needs to integrate himself into his staff and constantly provide them with updates. Adding new staff has the potential to inject energy into an organization, but showing favoritism towards these transplant staffers will sap morale dry.

Bryson will begin each morning by walking into the Department of Commerce’s headquarters, the Herbert C. Hoover building. It’s a grim way to begin each day—being reminded of the man viewed by history as the architect of the Great Depression. But this morning ritual can just as easily become a reminder of lessons learned and not a harbinger of the future. As Secretary of Commerce, Bryson has the power to save the economy where Hoover failed. If he succeeds, his success will become Obama’s. A strong transition is the first step.