The Trump Administration has a historically unprecedented rate of turnover of the senior staff, and it shows no sign of abating. This level of disruption would be difficult for any organization to handle. But these difficulties are compounded in the unique environment of the White House — and, for reasons I’ll elaborate on, may be especially difficult for this administration.
While there’s been a lot of coverage on the fact of the record-setting personnel turnover at the Trump White House, there hasn’t been much analysis of its likely costs. To put it bluntly: we know there’s a lot of turnover at the Trump White House, but does it matter? Is it a bad thing?
The short answer, according to decades of organizational research, is: yes and yes. High levels of senior executive turnover are difficult for any organization to absorb. Every senior leader has his or her own style, approach, objectives, and preferred practices. When an organization gets a new leader, their productive work slows down substantially, at best, as it adapts to the disruption caused by the changeover. Although replacing a poorly-performing organization’s leadership can help improve its performance over time, some disruption during the transition is inevitable, and frequent transitions make it difficult to ever establish a “normal” rhythm during which real work gets done.
Additionally, high levels of turnover in an organization’s top management team are very likely to make the organization as a whole perform substantially worse. Effective teams need psychological safety — in other words, team members need to trust one another and feel that they are able to share concerns without fear of punishment or betrayal. The members of high performance teams have a high level of tacit knowledge about one another — in other words, they understand each other on a personal level that stretches far beyond knowledge of each other’s resumes. Trust and understanding can only build over time. They simply cannot exist in a team that is constantly introducing new members.
Of course, turnover in the President’s senior staff is always high. These jobs are, even by the standards of the senior executives at major companies, brutal. The pressure and hours match or exceed even the most demanding private sector jobs, without the compensation of private sector pay or perks. The public scrutiny is relentless.
But even though it’s usual for turnover to be high in the White House, the problems that turnover creates tend to be worse in the West Wing. First, replacement is more difficult than in a normal organization. When the White House loses members of its senior staff, it is constrained in whom it can find to replace them by the lengthy and complex security clearance process, the need to assuage different political constituencies, and the complex alchemy of how their vision of the Administration meshes with that of the rest of the senior staff and that of the President.
Second, the learning curve for new hires is more daunting. Any new job has a learning curve. The challenges of working in the White House are unique, which makes that learning process particularly important and time-consuming. It’s not like moving from one private sector job to another. Working in the White House is profoundly different from working anywhere else. Every time you remove someone, and particularly when you replace them with someone without senior government experience, you start that learning process all over again.
This brings me to some of the unique challenges facing the Trump White House: first, the President has replaced 48% of the members of the Executive Office of the President. At similar points in their Administrations, that number was 17% for Reagan, 7% for H.W. Bush, 11% for Clinton, 6% for W. Bush, and 9% for Obama. Essentially, half of Trump’s senior team is on their first year on the job even though he’s on his second. Compounding this problem, the number of staffers who are inexperienced in government in the Trump administration is unusually high. Rex Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department showed that even highly-skilled private sector executives with a record of corporate successes can struggle with the drastically different demands of government service.
Certain characteristics of this administration make it even harder for this White House to replace the people it has been losing with people who are of traditional White House caliber. The pool of potential hires for any White House is already shallow; but this Administration’s refusal to hire many staunch Republicans who opposed Trump in the primaries limits this talent pool even more, and there are few candidates for senior staff roles with the sort of experience that previous Administrations would have considered necessary.
The humiliating manner in which staff members are fired is also likely to make it tougher for this White House to attract new talent. Tillerson found out that he was fired from Twitter; it was even leaked hat he was informed while on the toilet. H.R. McMaster, among the most legendary soldiers of his generation, was left to drift in the wind for weeks while rumors of his impending ouster were bruited about. FBI Director James Comey found out he’d been fired while on a work trip to L.A. and it was reported on television; he was then publicly attacked by the President for taking a government plane back to the East Coast. The White House has even claimed that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin resigned, even while Shulkin himself says that he was fired over Twitter.
An additional wrinkle unique to this White House is that ex-senior staff from have been largely unable to find the lucrative private sector positions that are normally easily available for people who used to hold their positions. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus, the discarded Press Secretary and Chief of Staff, have both failed to land the sorts of jobs their equivalents from previous administrations did. If a White House role starts to be seen as a career-limiter rather than a career-launcher, then it becomes harder to hire the best, or even adequate, talent.
Finally, the Mueller investigation and other scandals leave people joining the Administration vulnerable to the threat of astronomical legal bills, as even new hires could easily be swept up into an investigation into continuing obstruction of justice. (The Washington press has speculated that legal costs are one reason that Communications Director Hope Hicks abruptly resigned.) Service on the White House is supposed to be just that, service. But service at the price of humiliation, potential bankruptcy, or even prosecution is a lot to ask of the already tiny group of people who are both acceptable to the Administration and capable of filling these roles. Some people might well be willing to take the chance out of sheer ambition—but those are not people any Administration should want. That’s how you go from an “A team” to a C or even D team.
There’s little reason to think we’re about to see a turnaround. This president prides himself on doing things differently, and of going with his gut instead of following the advice of experts like me. Not only would changing his approach to talent management likely be low on his list of priorities, there’s little reason to think he could change even if he wanted to: the Presidential Personnel Office (the office tasked with, among other responsibilities, staffing the White House) is less than a third of its size in previous Administrations, and the only work experience many members of its staff have is working on the Trump campaign. Two of its most senior officials have records that include being arrested for drunken driving, passing bad checks, and assault. The Trump Administration’s problems in staffing seem to be hindering the very organization responsible for fixing them.
Any President needs help, and one with no previous experience in government needs it more. Some of Trump’s appeal to his supporters was grounded in his defiant insistence on taking an approach that is radically different from that of his predecessors. My research focuses on leaders like that — I call them “unfiltered” leaders. They can tend to be either enormously successful or catastrophic failures. One thing the successful ones all have in common is that they pick their spots. No leader, even the most brilliant, can be different in all things all the time. Precisely because unfiltered leaders are often making choices and pushing policies that no one else would, they need to surround themselves with capable teams even more than ordinary leaders do, much as Lincoln did with his legendary “Team of Rivals.” Trump’s management of the White House has made it virtually impossible for him to surround himself with a top-notch team, even though he needs one even more than a normal president would.
The dysfunctions of the White House staff have been apparent during the first 15 months of the Trump presidency. The President may well feel that he thrives amid the chaos. But if you believe as I do that great leaders need strong teams behind them, his administration is likely to slide into even deeper disarray.
Source: Harward Business