By Gregg Keller
July 22, 2014
One of the greatest things about working in politics is the quick personal bonds you forge with your coworkers under the stress of a difficult campaign. Great, too, is the fact that every two years brings a new campaign and a new batch of talented coworkers to learn from. This year has been especially gratifying from that perspective for me, as I’ve been able to watch two former deputies of mine win high-profile, underdog races. In February I saw a former deputy of mine manage the winning campaign for San Diego mayor. This, despite the fact that registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the city. Tonight, I was thrilled to watch another former deputy of mine, this one a hire at a national political nonprofit I used to run, shock the political world by managing the winning campaign in Georgia’s Republican US Senate primary. This win came despite the fact that his candidate was a political novice running against the entire Georgia Republican establishment. The students have, indeed, become the masters.
I’ve been fortunate in my career to have been entrusted with responsibility for managing large organizations from a relatively young age. At 28 I managed my first US Senate campaign: a $15 million dollar statewide effort. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to run other large campaigns and political organizations, including two of America’s biggest political nonprofits. Along the way I’ve worked with and overseen some truly talented people. Through those experiences I’ve learned to rely upon a few self-taught management lessons. Among them:
1) Go. Go. Go. A political manager always needs to be moving, always doing things and always seen by their team to be doing things. Every self-help book puts proactivity right at the top of attributes for a successful person. The same is true for political organizations. Embrace your inner spaz. If you saw me in one of my political management roles you’d think I had serious ADHD, as I constantly flitted from one meeting or phone call to another. In politics, that’s what successful management looks like.
2) Over-communication. Embrace it. Live it. My first job in politics was as the Body Man to a US Senate candidate. I drove the car, carried the briefcase, managed the schedule on the road and handled the candidate. It’s still the best job I’ve ever had and since then I’ve had the opportunity to mentor and train a few personal aides myself. One thing I always tell them about keeping the schedule on track when traveling to events with the candidate: there’s no such thing as “on time.” You’re either late or you’re early. So be early. The same is true for internal communications: there’s no such thing as the “right” amount of communication. You’re either over-communicating with your colleagues or under-comunicating with them. The consequences of the former are far easier to bear than those of the latter. So, when communicating with your coworkers, overdo it.
3) Speed kills. The other guy, that is. One of my most painful political memories was working with a statewide candidate, a first-time candidate at that, and watching him put himself through the wringer as to whether or not to sign a particular national conservative group’s Pledge. I wanted him to sign it, but that’s beside the point. The candidate, against my advice, spent two weeks taking advice from anyone he could get on the phone as to whether or not he should sign this particular pledge. That kind of overly-deliberative posture may work in the business world, where you have quarters and even years to make decisions. But in politics decisions must be made quickly. If you make a mistake, make a course correction. But losing political efforts are those that move slowly.
4) Punish sins of omission, not commission. If you’re managing your political team effectively, they’re going to be constantly acting, constantly executing, constantly making decisions. They understand the overall objectives but aren’t waiting on you, the manager, to OK every single tactical decision. The more decisions that are made, the more mistakes will be made. Don’t punish mistakes that result from a proactive stance, except in extreme circumstances of poor judgment. Doing so will kill your team’s spirit. When they commit a sin of commission, talk to them about it, figure out a fix, distribute a hug and move on. In instances when you can’t get someone off the dime to proactively work: that’s when you start throwing furniture.