How can Jacob Lew avoid legacy issues as President Obama’s chief of staff?


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US President Barack Obama announced last month Jacob Lew would replace William M. Daley as White House Chief of Staff.

Lew is a Harvard graduate from New York who has extensive experience running large institutions in banking, government and academia. He worked at Citigroup from 2006-2009, serving for a year as COO of Citi Alternative Investments, which at the time was a $54 billion proprietary trading, hedge fund and private equity unit. Having also had a long career as a public servant he is well-known on Capitol Hill, and both Democrats and Republicans have said respectful things about him in the press.

There will certainly be legacy issues that will need to be overcome. This is not unusual of course, and any senior leader taking on a new role has to cope with this. The challenge is to proactively identify these issues so that you are not blind-sided a few weeks or months into the role. This is where you would hope Lew has done his due diligence before taking on the role.

His reputation and network of contacts will be essential to him in dealing with the difficulties he will face in what promises to be a tough year. He is the third Chief of Staff Obama has hired since taking office. The fact that Lew's predecessor, Daley, held the post for only a year is perhaps an indication of the difficulty of being White House Chief of Staff at a time when the US has crawled out of a financial crisis and into a bitterly divided political climate.

It will also be hugely important for Lew to recognise that needs to pay attention to new stakeholders also, and that he must do this quickly. Very often the challenge with experienced business people is to realise that they need to make an effort to build new networks and very often they are not good at it.

According to Bloomberg, former Clinton budget director Alice Riflin called Lew "a very skilled negotiator. He's quiet," she said. "He doesn't throw his weight around, but he gets the job done."

This 'quietness' will need to be overcome as it may actually mask a weakness around getting out there and developing new and important relationships.

Lew will need to bring all his skills to bear in his time as chief. He will need to start with the end in mind and develop, communicate and execute a very clear strategy, gearing towards an inevitable confrontation with Republicans in Congress as Obama begins his reelection campaign.

He will need to build a strong team around him and this will involve deciding quickly whether some of the current team are the right people in the right roles. If they are not then he will have to make quick, assertive decisions about whether these people should stay on the bus or not.

Having worked for two years as deputy for Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Lew is an insider with knowledge of the workings of upper-echelon government, but as a first-time Chief of Staff he will nevertheless face a learning curve in the first 100 days. As with being a CEO, there is no way to learn the job except to learn on the job.

To overcome many of the challenges mentioned above, Lew will need to take a leaf out of his boss's book. President Obama announced his 100-day plan when he took office (just like FDR did in 1933). Lew would be well advised to do the same.

Garrett O'Keeffe, senior consultant and director of programmes at First100


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