By Aidan Rave

Ted Sorensen’s seminal biography of JFK, written by the president’s closest and most trusted advisor only a few years after the grim events in Dallas in November 1963, offers a rare and unique insight into the workings of the presidency that came to be known as ‘Camelot’.

Of particular interest is a chapter devoted to the period of transition between Kennedy’s election victory in November 1960 and his inauguration and formal assumption of office in January 1961. During these three frenetic months, Sorenson describes how over a thousand government posts were filled, ranging from key cabinet positions through to junior advisors.

Each post needed to be balanced against the oft-competing demands of politics and the effective administration of the executive branch, requiring the recruitment team to know when to compromise and when to expend political capital and remain steadfast in the face of opposition. Despite the many challenges – US politics was no less partisan back in the 1960s than it is now – there is a clear sense throughout that Sorenson and his team were recruiting against a mission underpinned by a successful election campaign, subsequently set out so eloquently in Kennedy’s inaugural address.

Each appointment, be it political or administrative, was governed by an unambiguous credo. Even appointments that were intensely political in nature were still ultimately made to contribute to this overall purpose. There was also a palpable sense that the assembling of a new administration was in preparation for the work to come and not an end in itself, given that nothing was “real” until the formal handover in late January.

Contrast this with the nature of Organisational Development frequently observed in so many modern-day organisations. Too often, the ubiquitous “organisational restructure” is undertaken in a ritualistic manner based on the arrival of a new chief executive or in response to a crisis or opportunity rather than in response to a clear mission and ‘to do’ list.

Indeed, restructures themselves are too often seen as the central tenet of an OD exercise rather than as the preliminary stage in a much longer journey. Strategic ambiguity, insufficiently defined skill, behaviour and value requirements, and arcane recruitment practices all contribute to the practically audible groan of cynicism that so often accompanies the announcement of another “top team restructure”. What else did you expect? They’ve heard it all before, seen it all before and can point to precious few tangible examples of unqualified success.
While the circumstances of assembling a new governing administration in 90 days are certainly unusual, many parallels are apparent and there are lessons that are still relevant today:

  1. The necessity for assembling a new team must be explicit and, if not widely understood, then communicated in the clearest of terms. The mission should translate clearly into ‘what we need to do’ and this in turn underlines the organising principle of the need for a restructure.
  2. A restructure is an enabler of the main event, not an end in itself. Again, the clarity of this should be apparent and widely communicated.
  3. A distillation of the demands of the mission should produce a series of clear requirements (skills, behaviours etc.), which in turn determine the recruitment materials, and tone of the restructure, ensuring that there is a clear link between the mission and the nature of the new team.
  4. Those charged with assembling the team MUST be familiar with the wider purpose. Clarity between the project sponsor (director or chief executive), HR, specialist recruitment support and any non-executives* involved in making the final decision must be watertight. All too often, these links are tenuous at best.
  5. The process must be effectively project-managed from the centre throughout. HR have a key role in this but the link to mission demands that assembling the new team should be co-ordinated around the sponsor. This is, again, frequently not the case.

Tragically, we did not get to see the full extent of how successful this approach was for Kennedy, or indeed Sorensen. Nonetheless, as a president who frequently drew on historical learning to inform his own leadership, the lessons of JFK’s assembling of ‘Camelot’ has much to contribute to contemporary organisational thinking.

* In UK local government terms, elected members are often statutorily required to make senior appointments having had little or nothing to do with the preceding elements of the process.

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