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.