The Hill Life: "The Makeup"

Nov 16, 2011

Last night, I started reading Moneyball. In the book, the baseball scouts are trying to whittle down a crop of almost 700 names to the 60 players who they’ll choose in the draft. In addition to all of the physical attributes that the team considered, they spoke often about players who had “the makeup”–the temperament and mental skills required to play the game.

Much like baseball players, Hill staffers need to have “the makeup” for Congressional work–the right combination of knowledge, intelligence, judgment, perspective and composure. Unfortunately, not every person who becomes a staffer possesses all of these qualities.

Out of the five attributes listed above, in my view, the most important one is judgment. The building blocks of good judgment (maturity, discernment, suspicion, etc.) are innate, and some people’s foundations are better than others. But there are tools that you can use to strengthen the skills you already have, but you have to recognize where you’re deficient first.

Not every staffer makes the perfect decision every time. Mistakes will be made, but it is the type and caliber of the mistakes that separates those with good judgment from those without it. And there are a handful of staffer behaviors that are a sure sign of poor judgment.

Name Recognition. Never use your Boss’s name to get something for yourself or to get yourself out of a jam. Your primary job as a staffer is to protect your Boss, and using his name as a get out of jail free card or as a vehicle for self-enrichment is a terrible idea.

I’ve seen staffers use their Boss’s name to get into restaurants, get invited to different events or to get out of trouble with the Capitol Police. Using your Boss’s name, unless he tells you to, is a good way to put his reputation and your job at risk.

This is especially true when law enforcement is involved. So if you’re having a loud party or you get pulled over, don’t let the phrase, “I work for Senator/Congressman…” pass your lips.

The Blame Game. If something goes wrong, it is always your job to jump on the grenade (unless there’s a chance of serious repercussions eg. jail). Never tell a constituent, a lobbyist or other outsider that your Boss is responsible for something going awry, even when he is.

Mistakes are either one of two things: 1) an unavoidable, but regrettable product of circumstance or 2) your fault. If someone ever comes looking for a scalp to soothe their pain, yours is the head it comes from, not your Boss’s. Unless, of course, he tells you otherwise.

Secrecy/Snooping. There are many things in your Boss’s life that are none of your damn business. So if you are in a position to have access to his personal e-mails or details about his personal life, you need to keep the things you know to yourself and not go searching for more. Sometimes, the less information you possess, the better.

Express Yourself. All staffers have political beliefs, and sometimes our beliefs don’t mesh perfectly with our Member’s positions. The majority of Members are okay with some deviation in the ranks, some even encourage it, provided, of course, that the outlier can keep her thoughts to herself in public. Bottom line, you have a right to your beliefs, but when talking to constituents and the public, your Boss’s opinions are the only ones that matter.

The foundation of good judgment is innate. However, judgment can be improved and cultivated through experience and maturity. So how do you sharpen your judgment?

First, find someone whose judgment you trust and try to learn from them. You can learn a lot just by watching a good staffer’s decision making process or seeing how she handles herself in meetings. Try to emulate the behaviors that give you the sense that this person has excellent judgment.

I learned how to handle tough meetings, deflect criticism and allay fears by watching my old Chief of Staff when I was a lowly Staff Asst. I’d just sit at my desk and listen to him take meetings and make phone calls. It didn’t really matter what they were about, it was the tone of voice he used and the way he responded to what they were saying that I was paying attention to. I also watched him problem solve and make decisions, and it really helped me see what factors were important when responding to different scenarios.

Second, read. There are hundreds of books written by and about former politicos and politicians and their time in office, and nearly every one delves into that persons decision making process. By seeing what worked for them and what went wrong, you can develop some of the tools that a good staffer needs.

Third, talk it out. Ask yourself, “How would this look on the front page of The Washington Post?” Think about whether you could say or do X in front of your Boss and what his reaction would be. A few moments of mental gymnastics can usually save you a bunch of trouble.

Unfortunately, most of the bad decisions staffers make, like using their Boss’s name to get out of trouble, are made in a pinch. They don’t think about what they’re doing. But if you’ve strengthened your judgment, you’re more likely to take a pause and prevent yourself from rushing into a mistake.

There is a certain discernment required to be a good staffer because the decisions that you make every day will shape your Boss’s reputation and future as well as your own. If you don’t make wise choices when it counts, it’s very likely that you will wind up a cautionary tale, or worse, the subject of an unflattering headline in Roll Call. So take a little time to think critically about where your judgment might be lacking and how you could improve.

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  1. katherine says:

    Wow I just discovered your blog, and this was a great read – I definitely recognize and can relate to some of these from former careers (many of these sound like banking!!). I've always wondered about what life working in DC was like and this was very interesting. (BTW – are you liking Moneyball? I really like Michael Lewis!)

  2. V says:

    The biggest judgement call I think about was from George Stephanopolis' book, where he said, “Don't talk about what you can't do.” If it's illegal to do X, don't suggest it, don't say you wish it was a possibility, and don't even joke about it. Especially not where there's a paper trail.

  3. emily says:

    Belle, great post. Do you have any book suggestions that you've learned from? I'm looking into Madaline Albright's biography but if you've got anything else, I'd love to hear it. I think I have the “bug” for DC and I just love your blog, so thanks!

  4. A says:

    I think one of the things staff sometimes forget is “No one elected me.” It doesn't matter what you think. A couple hundred thousand people voted for or against your boss, so his/her opinion is the only one that matters as long as it's an informed decision made in the best interest of constituents.

  5. BruinGirl says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. But you left one thing out: social media. NEVER talk trash about your office or your boss online (or to any outsider period-this includes interns). You may think only a handful of people are seeing it (even if you think you're anonymous on twitter), and before you know it your comments are all over the web. Before making any comments online, stop and ask yourself how that seemingly innocent remark could be blown out of proportion and end up in the Post or on the cover of Roll Call. We all can get frustrated at work, and your boss may be the model of how NOT to run an office or treat the staff, but keep the complaints to yourself. It can reflect badly upon you if you seek to move to another office, regardless of whether or not the issues are common knowledge. If you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all. The Hill thrives on gossip-do everything you can to avoid being at the center of it.

  6. K says:

    Great post.

    I cannot help but think it could have been inspired by those staffers in Annapolis who used their boss' name at the party house. Not classy.

  7. N says:

    Oh, man, Twitter: Be careful with it! I passed along a silly, goofy rumor that was related to the state with which I worked (but not my boss) to a friend in what I thought was a direct message. Only, not so much. I still don't know what I did wrong, but the next morning, a blog had printed the information as “'insert my name', a staffer for 'insert boss's name here', posted 'xyz' on Twitter last night.” Luckily, it was harmless and my boss laughed about it, but it was a lesson learned. I wouldn't have ever posted anything harmful about him on Twitter, Facebook, or even email – anywhere where there was a written trail – direct message or not. However, just imagine how badly that could have gone if I had.

  8. BruinGirl says:

    My above comment also applies to talking trash about other members and their offices, especially from a work computer. They can capture ip addresses, as they did with the unfortunate staffers in a Senator's office (I can't remember which one) who got caught posting derogatory comments about another elected official on a website from their work computer.

  9. Moose says:

    Well-said, Belle. I am going to include this in my intern packet! One addition: Your bb is NOT your personal device. I helped close down my old boss' office in '08 and was in charge of taking inventory of ten years' worth of electronic devices. I was absolutely shocked at some of the images, emails, and bbm conversations that were left on those devices.

    For that matter, do not type anything in emails from your official account that you wouldn't want published in WaPo. Anything done on your official computer or email account or blackberry do not belong to you, and live on long after you have deleted them!

  10. Amy says:

    Just start as a staffer this week, as assistant to COS, this was very helpful!

  11. Laura says:

    As a senior, Political Science major, I love reading your blog and I find posts like this one to be so helpful!! Thank you for taking the time to do this!

  12. Kim says:

    I just started Slouching Toward Bethlehem (Oct 28 post)!! I absolutely love it. I was all excited about Moneyball the movie because it's something my husband & I could agree upon….but he didn't want to see it – not enough action. For me, Brad + business strategy = love. So I guess I have to read the book.

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