Reprinted with permission from Climbing the Hill by Jaime Harrison and Amos Snead, copyright © 2018, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
The following lessons, while intended for a career in any field, can be seen as the building blocks of a political career.
1. Find Your Mentor
Some would-be politicians come to their ambition late in life. They’ve succeeded in their chosen professions, and only then do they decide to enter the arena. Not Jaime Harrison. It’s hard to say if Jaime knew he wanted to be a politician the night he watched the Reverend Jesse Jackson speak at the Democratic National Convention in 1988 — the night his grandfather let him stay up late.
Jaime does know that by the time he had begun working for Representative Clyburn, he wanted to do what Clyburn did. When he left the Hill, returning to the arena was always Jaime’s plan. He recalls a conversation he had with Clyburn when trying to figure out what sort of job to take after the Hill. Clyburn knew Jaime’s ambitions, and he supported them. So, it might sound strange that Clyburn advised Jaime to join the private sector first.
Why shouldn’t Jaime start building his political base instead? Maybe run for the state legislature in South Carolina first? Because, said Clyburn, Jaime had an advantage that African American politicians before him, officials from Clyburn’s generation, didn’t have. Clyburn mentioned that Black politicians of his era chose politics out of necessity.
The private sector was mostly closed to them, insofar as it was a path to advancement and security. But the world had changed, and Jaime could ease his path toward politics by securing his financial situation at home first— paying off credit cards and student loans and taking care of his family. Then Jaime could launch his political career. He heeded his mentor’s advice and joined a public relations and lobbying firm.
Clyburn’s advice was of the kind that Jaime had come to expect from his longtime mentor. The wisdom behind it is that it advised patience —something most young people can’t comprehend. When Jaime looks on the life he and his wife have built for their growing family, he knows that Clyburn advised him well. This is one example out of dozens we could cite that reinforce the importance of having a mentor. Clyburn wasn’t Jaime’s only mentor during his Hill years. One other was Yelberton “Yebbie” Watkins, Clyburn’s chief of staff. Except for Clyburn, no one had a greater influence on Jaime’s growth as a Hill staffer (and person) than Yebbie.
Yebbie taught Jaime the ins and outs of the Hill, even while he helped Jaime climb it. To this day, Jaime calls Yebbie and Clyburn to ask their advice on important decisions (and vice versa).
Much of this book is advice we learned from our mentors. But we can only give so much general advice. This is why a mentor is more than a civics teacher or career counselor. A real mentor helps guide the growth and maturity of you as a person. Maybe not consciously, but by watching and emulating your mentor, you will discover the secrets of success.
We’ve done our best to list those secrets for you, but each person, every career, is different. You will discover your own success secrets as you rise. Most will come from the people you respect and admire. In time, you will impart these secrets to those who come after you. The mentor relationship can be but doesn’t have to be, deliberate.
In other words, you don’t need to sit down for coffee with someone and ask that person to mentor you. (Chances are that individual has already decided to help you.) You also don’t need to be coy about your intentions and expectations. The person you’ve chosen will understand what you are after because they’ve been there before.
Our best advice on choosing the right mentor is to find the person in your office or another office whom you would want to be. In most cases, this person is one of your superiors, perhaps even the member.
Use some sense when weighing your options. If it’s your first day on the job (or first month), it’s probably not the best idea to badger the member—or chief of staff, legislative director, or press secretary—to start teaching you. The member and staff don’t know you, and they’re not going to spend a lot of time (and trust) on you until they do. You must understand that of all the junior-level staffers working in an office at any one time, only a select few have any intention of staying long-term. No one wants to waste time on someone who’s looking at the Hill as a good jumping-off point. So, give it time. Do your job. Your eagerness, willingness, and work ethic will be noticed.
Besides, mentors want protégés. Heck, we wanted to write this book because it serves the same purpose as mentorship. Given the absence of human resource departments in politics, no one is going to hand you the company guidebook to tell you what to do.
The entire legislative operation is based on learning on the job. You can trace a line from the staffers today to the very first staffers of the First Continental Congress, each new wave learning from the ones who came before. In other words, we know you need help and advice, and we want to give it.
2. Find Common Ground
It’s important to continually reach across the aisle and try to find common ground. After Jaime became chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party in 2013, he made a point of reaching out to his counterpart on the Republican side, Matt Moore. Together, Jaime and Matt formed a working relationship, which turned into a friendship. One collaboration that Jaime is particularly proud of is their efforts on prison reform in South Carolina.
Matt and Jaime visited a local prison together and were able to build a bipartisan consensus on the need to overhaul how their state handled sentencing and incarceration based on new evidence that old ideas regarding crime were counterproductive.
This episode wasn’t the first time Jaime learned the value of finding common ground to effect change. The lesson was drilled into him as a staffer on the Hill, from such titans as his friends Clyburn and Yebbie. Clyburn had great working relationships with members across the aisle, including golf buddy John Boehner, Representative Zach Wamp from Tennessee, and Representative Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania. The difference now is that it was Jaime’s turn; he was the leader. It certainly helped that Jaime had such a willing and talented partner in Matt, who also understands the value of common ground.
In today’s charged political environment, the idea of finding common ground seems impossible—even unsavory. At the same time, we complain that nothing ever gets done, at least in Washington. Maybe the two things are related? We’re not going to try to solve the gridlock in American politics right now; instead, we want to smash the notion that you can’t (and shouldn’t) try working with the other side. The best leaders are those who can bring together competing interests to reach a shared objective. The idea that one should only do business with those who share your principles and interests isn’t unrealistic; it’s impossible. Some of our hardest moments on the Hill were trying to get our own side to agree to a certain objective. But that’s how staffers learn the value of finding common ground. It is the only way to achieve results, no matter your industry.
Even in business, as a leader, you will never have 100 percent buy-in from your team on an idea or initiative. If you do, you want to find better colleagues, since those who agree with you all the time aren’t serving you very well.
People aren’t robots, and corralling a group of them to achieve an objective is difficult under any circumstance. The best leaders can manage the competing interests on their team and find the common ground. Moreover, true leaders can convince others to set aside their priorities to pursue the shared priority. Easier said than done, whether in business or in politics.
You will never truly appreciate how hard it is to get a bunch of people all pulling in the same direction until you work on the Hill. Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe it. It can be maddening, soul-sucking, tedious work. Yet, occasionally, it happens and it’s magical.
Of course, it’s not magic. It’s the result of extremely talented leaders, who are experts of the art of finding common ground. Stick around the Hill long enough, and you will discover how it’s done. When you’re starting out, you will watch in awe as the masters of the Hill, members and staffers alike, achieve results. In time, you will have learned how to do it yourself. If you’re good at it, we cannot overstate the value you can bring to any organization.
First, you must believe in the power of finding common ground. It’s not a weakness; you ’re not “selling out” your side if you reach across the aisle. It all goes back to why you want to work in politics in the first place.
As we said at the beginning, if your intent is to “crush” the other side, you will do poorly on the Hill. As a staffer in the legislative branch, your job is to help legislate. Leave the “crushing” to the party folks. Besides, there will never be a moment during your years as a staffer when your side can pass whatever it wants, however it wants.
Even if your party controls both chambers and the White House, the need for common ground never disappears. Remember, if your party is in the majority today, it might not be tomorrow. How you approach and treat the other side won’t be forgotten when circumstances are reversed.
3. Find Your First Principles
Working in politics, you will soon learn that the right ideas don’t make someone a leader. You will see many bad leaders—elected officials or high-ranking staffers who say all the right things but couldn’t lead a kid to a candy store. That’s because ideology and correct beliefs have very little to do with leadership, particularly in government.
Ideology and beliefs are cheap; principles are expensive. And every good leader has a set of principles that guide his or her actions and conduct. If you’ve read this far, you can easily guess the kind of principles valued on the Hill. They don’t only help you advance up the Hill; they will also serve you as a leader. The temptation to cut corners, to lash out at subordinates, to turn into a jerk is constant.
The only reason people follow a jerk is because they’re afraid to get fired. That’s not how you motivate people. No one looks up to a jerk and says, “I’ll follow him to the Gates of Hell!” The way you motivate people is by setting an example, by being someone worth emulating.
Principles inspire people, and inspiration is a critical component of leadership. On the Hill, you’ll be surprised at how so few people have succumbed to cynicism. It’s understandable when it happens because the back-and-forth of politics can be a tedious experience. Which is why inspiring leaders are so important to the daily function of Hill life.
Someone who can pick up the troops when morale is low is someone who can motivate a team to action. As a staffer, you will need to find your strength and determination almost daily. A great leader in the office makes it a lot easier.
How does the Hill help you find the principles that will guide you? By revealing that all the wrong principles don’t help achieve results. The principles you hold most dear are the ones that you discovered during the tough moments.
And on the Hill, you ’ll have plenty of those. But you will see how those above you rally and overcome the hard times; you’ll also see that those with the wrong principles, or no principles at all, fail and often fall. Slowly, you will gather about you a set of principles critical to your success as a staffer. Not only are these the principles that help you navigate challenging moments, but they are also the ones you rely on to help influence others. If no one wants to follow a jerk, neither do they want to do a jerk’s bidding. If you’re attempting to work across the aisle, those on the other side want to know if you’re a person who does business fairly and ethically.
We each knew that the other was a fair, responsible, and principled person. We knew each other’s reputations from the Hill, and we had worked together before writing this book. Because we respected each other — we shared similar principles despite our ideological differences— we were able to work toward something big, something inspiring, something like this book.
Find your principles, stick with them, and you will see how others respond. You will become a leader worth following.