Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania talent scout

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    It occurred to me recently that the next eight weeks may be the most critical time in Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Tom Wolf’s career.

     

    I say that because one of the toughest tests of leadership is the ability to find, recruit, empower and keep really talented people. I’ve seen this again and again among mayors and governors. Those who get good people do so much better than those who get hacks and duds.

    In a little less than eight weeks, Wolf needs to name 16 department heads who’ll have to pass Senate confirmation, dozens more of their deputies, and assemble a crackerjack staff of his own — policy, legislative and communications people who must be smart, hard-working, politically savvy and a smoothly functioning team.

    It’s clear in retrospect that current Gov. Tom Corbett staffed the governor’s office poorly to begin his administration. You can always make changes when people don’t work out, but you can never get back the time you lost.

    Talent search under pressure

    One of the challenges in filling government jobs is that when you find people with the background and skills to run something like, say, Pennsylvania’s health department, they’re likely to have pretty good jobs already.

    So you need to convince them they want to give up what they’re doing , move to Harrisburg, and probably sacrifice some salary and perks. Ed Rendell was pretty remarkable at this. He had a way of prevailing on people to join his team because, well, they just had to do it, and do it now.

    It’s easier to do if you’ve built a reputation as somebody who’s good to work for, who gets stuff done, and who will let good people do their jobs.  This comes with time, of course. Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, who’s is serving on Wolf’s transition team, said everyone involved understands the challenge.

    “It’s very hard to find people who are willing to serve. In some cases, willing to take a pay cut and leave the private sector to do it,” Shapiro told me. “But I think Tom Wolf is the kind of person that attracts talent and attracts good people.”

    I spoke to Pennsylvania Business Council President David Patti, who’s seen quite a few gubernatorial transitions. He says potential appointees are often dismayed to learn that they’re not just taking a pay cut. They get no moving expenses, have smaller staffs, and learn to live with puny expense accounts. 

    What a governor can offer appointees, he said, is the challenge of setting policy that may affect millions of people and the excitement of being close to a center of power. He said they like the idea of coming away with good stories to tell.

    “You know, [they’ll say] I was in the governor’s office when we were cursing out so and so, or congratulating the people who’d helped us, or signing this bill we worked on so hard,” Patti said.

    The right balance

    Wolf wants the best talent, of course, but there are other requirements to meet and constituencies to consult. He has to consider racial, gender and geographic balance, and he has to listen to people with advice to give.

    That includes major campaign supporters and Harrisburg players he’ll have to deal with, including legislative leaders. I asked Katie McGinty, whom Wolf has already named his chief of staff, if lawmakers were giving her names for potential appointees.

    “Oh, definitely,” she said with a laugh. “When have you ever known a legislator to be bashful? So they have recommendations, and we welcome them.”

    The deluge

    Another challenge facing the Wolf team is the sheer number of appointments to be made. Besides staffing the major state departments and the governor’s office, dozens of boards and commissions  must be populated. It adds up to hundreds of people.

    I called Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen, who managed mayoral and gubernatorial transitions for Ed Rendell. He said a well-managed transition isn’t just about hiring people. It’s also about understanding the policy issues the state faces and helping the governor “organize his thinking” about them.

    And he made the interesting point that while an executive needs to find the right people, they don’t all have to be in place by inauguration day. Leaving a holdover from the previous administration in office while you keep looking is sometimes the right move.

    “I have seen executives in transitions panic stricken because [they think], ‘Oh my God, we’ve got five vacancies and we take office in a week,’ and they make bad decisions,” Cohen said.

    He noted that Tom Wolf has had to handle plenty of demanding situations in business and has spent most of his career as an executive, which should help.

    Good luck, Tom. Make the next eight weeks count.

     

     

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