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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Don't be Email Obsessive

Since so many things in politics are done with words and over email, it can become easy to become email neurotic.

Some quick good advice is to force yourself to only check it twice a day at selected times, say 1030am and 230pm.

That allows you to then focus on your work at hand.

Otherwise you play into the stereotype of the young employee having ADD and unable to follow a single project to completion.

Don't be email neurotic and force yourself to only check it twice a day.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Assessing Leadership Deficits

There are many people in leadership positions in politics who are very ineffective.

I'd like to profile a few so that it's easy to think about solutions, and potential mistakes you can make when dealing with them.

One common trait is that these people stymie people who try anything new. They suffocate innovation and creativity, and push good people out. As Warren Buffett says, when a good manager meets a bad organization, the organization always wins. In this case, these people create an organizational culture that pushes good people out.

The tempting thing is to instigate a coup against people. Coups often work, but also often come at unpredictable costs. You can lose donors, entire segments of your political base, among other problems. Coups can be messy, prolonged and unstable. As well, when you run a coup of some sort, you're asking people to be duplicitous and conniving, traits that those people often can't turn off later. It's hard to trust a coworker who just dethroned someone. Also, more often than not, coups fail. Most people prefer stability over progress, the devil they know instead of the unstable revolution.

That said, these personality types are clingers who are unlikely to ever give up their positions of authority. As such, they remain and enforce a strict rule of mediocrity over their campaigns and organizations.

In many cases, it's simply not worth fighting the existing leadership for control or to push new ideas. Most leaders are unwilling to change. But in the hopes that every flailing campaign or organization can be turned around, let's consider some potential problem leaders and potential solutions.

So with that in mind, let's consider several leadership deficit archetypes:

Joe - Joe is an older fellow involved with a local political group. He's in the communications industry and tries hard to be 'hip' but is also insecure enough that he hates being the 'bad guy' so he tries to get other people to do what he wants without having to tell them what to do. Joe is in a leadership position and likes it. He wants to keep it by not making any mistakes. He won't allow anything new in 'his' organization, so he has a dozen side outlets for his mediocre creativity. He's worked in middle-management corporate life for so long that he thinks that mindset is the same in politics: run things quietly and be unassuming and, in time, things will just work out. Joe's leadership atrophies the grassroots, and kills any effective actions before they begin. Joe always has a reason to say no to new ideas.

Joe is the antithesis of creativity. He also doesn't trust himself to do anything risky.

Solution: Business types can be very hard to change or displace. They're going to have a common refrain of either "that's not how we do things around here" or something like "that's not how it's done in the business world" to shoot down any innovation. The easiest and best option is probably to walk away from this situation and not try to reform it, it's likely a lost cause. Your time and effort is better spent elsewhere. It may be wise to sit and wait for Joe to leave the organization so you can, then, turn it around.

Mary - Mary is late middle-aged divorced woman. She's highly insecure and tries to rule by consensus. When that doesn't work, she acts petty and catty with those around her who try to do anything new. Her involvement in politics is part personal, so she makes any political problem or issue into something much larger and disproportionate to reality. She might be a former low-level politician. She's also insecure, and so she never feels comfortable making a decision without excessive consensus and discussion even though she wants to be the final word. She wants the final word, but wants it to seem like consensus so she's not perceived as heavy-handed. She wants to have a group come to her guided consensus, not exert any active leadership.

Mary likes new ideas and new people, but she wants to talk and not act. She wants a huge crowd of people before she'd be willing to act, and even then she'd never be willing to be edgy or confrontational.

Solution: What Mary needs is someone of high-status to her to come in and displace her. Former leaders are hard to demote, so they often have to be pushed aside. But she'll never acquiesce to anyone she doesn't feel intimidated by. She'll also never allow someone from below her to displace her.

Betty - Betty is an older woman who was involved since the founding of the organization. She's a mountain of organizational history and knowledge. However, she's also a micromanager. Nothing happens without her involvement, and the staff she oversees don't know how to act without her prior approval and so, as a result, do almost nothing unless she demands it. The organization is thus poorly run and highly dysfunctional. There's a climate of fear because no one knows how to keep her happy and to adequately do what she wants. She's very communicative, but often gives conflicting statements. Betty is likely wooed by consultants and vendors much more than she ought to be, due in part to the fact that she can't trust her staff to do what she could otherwise have them do for cheaper, if she'd just trust them to do it in the first place.

Betty is tired and frustrated with the pace of the organization. She wants something new, but doesn't realize how she stands in the way of progress. She has the clout to shoot down any new idea.

Solution: Betty needs an outside consultant with status to impress her into a dramatic turnaround of her organization from top to bottom.


These are just three examples, and there are many more, but it's a starting point to really profile and assess the situations you find yourself in, and the internal politics of the campaigns you encounter.

Fixing broken organizations is a thankless job, and is often unsuccessful, but you can often succeed in time. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Don't worry about anonymous attacks

It's become fashionable for campaigns and politicos to worry about anonymous comments. They wonder who writes them, where the gossip comes from, and what to do about it.

It can become an obsession to find out who is saying what about you.

Some sources of this frustration are politicians frustrated by inaccurate wikipedia pages, or candidates who see foolish things written about them on blogs, or small websites that publish guilt-by-association accusations.

Worrying about these stories is a distraction and a losing cause. People will always gossip, and they'll always talk behind your back. At least with anonymous commenting, you can know what they were saying otherwise.

And since there's no way to take down the comments or false facts, you need to fight them with your own. As I've said elsewhere, you should always respond to repeated statements and comments like this, but be careful that you don't obsess over these kind of anonymous comments and attacks.

Most of your electorate will never read it, and few will hear it. It's hard to keep perspective that most people are simply unaware of even the gossip around their Congressman, much less any downballot race. If it's county or city politics, virtually none of the electorate even knows who the elected officials are by name.

Anonymous attacks are largely worth ignoring. Don't dignify them by wasting your time on them, and don't let your candidate or organization waste too much time worrying about it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Watch how they fire other people

Campaigns and Political Organizations often fire lots of people. In my experience at least half of employee departures weren't voluntary.

And you can tell a lot about a place by how it lets people go.

The person being let go once passed an interview. You likely worked alongside this person for a while. They were part of the team, and now they're not.

How do they get let go?

Most places are very low-class about terminations. They're downright ugly. They surprise people, they don't offer severance. I've known places that refuse reimbursements that were pending at the time of separation, or challenged items on a corporate credit card from the previous month. I've seen places purposefully fire people during certain times of the year so they would have a harder time finding a job. There was a place in DC that purposefully paid people barely enough to live on, and then fired them at the drop of a hat. They were an abusive organization, and they were exceedingly well-funded, with an eight-figure annual budget.

People can be ugly on the way out. And if you're still within the organization, make no mistake, they will likely treat you the exact same way on your way out.

The best advice I can give you if you're in that situation, or worried that you might be in that situation:
1- Always keep your resume ready
2- Always have a plan

Your plan should be simple: what skills do I uniquely have, and what places might hire me for those skills. What is my 'highest use' and the best source of employment. Have that list made before you get separated from a campaign or organization, because in the emotional turmoil of starting over, it will help keep you focused and disciplined to move forward.

Wherever you're working right now, ask yourself "how does working here help me in the long run" - what kind of other jobs does it set you up for, and what kind of groups and leaders can take notice of your good works? I had been working a job for two months and was offered two better jobs because someone who noticed me in that position now realized I was perfect for other positions. I declined the offer, but he would not have offered that job to me before. He took notice of me because I was doing a great job, working hard, and had potential. Working hard at your current position will get you noticed, and you should try and leverage that to always keep your options open, and make those opportunities work within the plan of where you want to be.

Keep your resume ready, and always have a plan.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Volunteer best practices: Always have work for volunteers

It is almost a constant complaint from campaigns and organizations: we need more volunteers! We want young people! We can't recruit!

The truth is, however, they likely have plenty of volunteers and they simply don't know how to process them, how to get them involved.

Most campaigns and organizations have a problem retaining volunteers, not recruiting them.

I worked at a place that wanted to do background searches for volunteers, and I knew a campaign that insisted on the same. Many groups refuse to buy even simple food for their volunteers.

Several groups I've met ask indignantly what skills I have to volunteer, and act as though I'm asking them to do work to volunteer for them.

I volunteered on a major Senate race a decade or so ago, and their idea of volunteer work was to sit me in an empty cafeteria with a phone and a spreadsheet of phone numbers, to do voter outreach.

Groups often don't know how to process volunteers.

What are volunteer best-practices?

1. Get them socially involved immediately. Introduce them to all staffers and paid people.
2. Get to know them a little bit. Ask them where they went to school, what their hobbies are, what they feel really good at.
3. Give them a title. It can be "assistant director of volunteer outreach" - but make a title up and make them feel like they exist within the campaign or group's hierarchy.
4. MOST IMPORTANT: have regular work for them. Make sure it's not mundane like letter stuffing or making calls. A great example is to give them a stack of literature or newspapers to go out and distribute to their neighborhood. It is important to sit down and make a list of all self-contained projects that volunteers can do, and have that list ready for any new volunteer to choose from, or be assigned a project from.
5. Ask them for a resume if they have one. You'll see their actual skills right away, and can use those for the campaign.
6. Play matchmaker: try to pair single people together. They'll have more in common even if romance doesn't happen. People often volunteer to meet other people, so fulfill that need for them. Also try to pair people with similar ages if possible, and always try to bring in volunteers in small groups so they have some camaraderie.

Volunteers often stop volunteering because:
1. They feel they aren't needed
2. They feel like they're only given boring work
3. They're the only volunteer or otherwise isolated
4. They don't feel like they're a member of the team
5. No one reminds them that they're needed

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Paid to Interrupt

A friend was recently relaying a campaign story that I thought was important.

The friend's boss was running for statewide office. He was a notoriously hard person to work with, and very abrasive. And the friend's job was to interrupt him during important meetings and be scolded for interrupting.

Why?

So that the candidate could look at the donor or important person and say, "Can't you see that I'm here with Mr. Jones, and we're talking about important things! I don't care that I'm late for my other appointments, I want to stay here and talk with Mr. Jones."

It made the candidate look like a leader, like someone who cared about the people he was meeting with.

But the staffer had to suffer through this repeated indignity. He has a thick skin so it wasn't an issue for him, but for other people it could have been difficult to deal with.

Your job though, is to always make your candidate or organization look good. Sometimes that means little acts of theater like this, but it always means working as a team, working through these situations, and playing your part.

Sometimes your job will mean your candidate wants you to interrupt them just so they can tell you no.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Where do campaigns waste the most money?

Without question, campaigns and organizations waste the most money on consultants.

Many would say "media" - but at least the media translates potentially into new voters or new donors, and raises your name identification.

Consultants offer and pitch a variety of often worthless products. It's almost cliche to notice on LinkedIn the number of people who list themselves as "Social Media Consultants" as though Twitter requires specialized paid staff.

Many vendors and firms will also charge an arm and a leg to do very basic things. And a good rule of thumb when it comes to consultants is, if an intern can do it, an intern will be doing it. If you hire a consultant to do "social media" strategy, it means the consultant will pay an intern $8 an hour to write up a three page report, and charge your campaign $1,500 for their expertise.

Consultants: almsot always a total and utter waste.

Vendors are sometimes different, I call "vendors" those who offer a specific product other than their emails and pretty thoughts. Vendors exist for creating tv commercials, for writing and producing direct mail, for creating a website. You pay them for a result.

But even vendors can be quite wasteful. You'll notice many become family affairs, with multiple related people working together. And while some family enterprises are well-run and great, most aren't. Most exist as a subsidy to that particular family, and most of the people are socializing during the day and not working.

Many campaigns will try to steer vendor work to their friends. This is also a mistake, because you always, and I repeat and emphasize always, get substandard work for higher prices.

When the candidate's cousin is making the campaign website, it ends up being six weeks late and costing twice as much.

Also you'll sometimes see family members hired as consultants. This even happened on the Romney campaign, and it's a sign of extreme unprofessionalism, because it forces you as a campaign staffer to be forced to explain to donors and voters why the relatives are on staff and what they're doing. It also complicates recruiting volunteers because now you have to explain why the family gets paid and the volunteers are expected to work for free.

Two other quick sources of expensive and unnecessary campaign expenses are ridiculous office situations, and excessive legal counsel.

I've seen 12 person campaign staffs working out of a 50,000 square foot warehouses. I've seen 5 person political organizations paying exorbitant $4,000 a month office space rent when they could have moved ten miles and paid a fourth as much.

Media is a big expense, and people love to hate on its costs. And I'd agree that it has low returns. People also love to hate on the mail programs, and sure enough, mail does have frustratingly low response rates. But both of those things have positives, they're not total wastes.

Pricey consultants, sloppy vendors, families on staff, excessive legal consultation and silly office space rentals are the source of real campaign waste.