The first hire on a campaign sets the tone. Bring in the wrong person and it could stunt your candidacy. The right personnel decision, meanwhile, can be the first step toward winning on Election Day.
Most operatives develop a specialty during their careers, which they use to market themselves to campaigns and organizations. Having a talented operative heading your communications, field or finance department is essential. But all too often a campaign will either burn through its seed money hiring a team of operatives right off the bat, or refuse to hire anyone on the front end and leave essential work to rookie staffers.
Your first campaign hire should be hardworking, well-rounded and have at least some experience in all the crucial areas of a campaign. When making your first hire, here are six questions to ask.
1. Are you hardworking?
You win an election by consistently outworking your opponent. Ask your potential hire, how many times did you pull an all-nighter or sleep in the office? It shouldn’t be every day or you’ll have an exhausted team, but any staffer worth his or her salt has made walk books or call sheets all night in order to meet their goals.
2. How organized are you?
Your first staffer will make call sheets, keep track of volunteer schedules, the campaign’s schedule, fundraising records, voter contact data and more. Ask the staffer specifically how he or she would organize it all. For instance, does she use project management software? Separate notebooks for communications, field and finance? There’s no wrong way to stay organized, but disorganization spells disaster.
3. Are you afraid to pick up the phone?
Your first staffer will spend at least half the time with a phone to his or her ear setting up donor meetings, speaking engagements, recruiting local officials and even making low-dollar donor asks. With that in mind, candidates should look for a resume with finance or volunteer recruitment experience—jobs where the potential hire became used to making dozens of asks over the phone every day.
4. Do you have campaign management experience?
Even if it’s managing a legislative or municipal campaign, that kind of experience demonstrates that your potential hire has dealt with field, communications, and fundraising all at the same time. Excelling in a management position also shows that your potential hire has the ability to lead and maintain his or her composure while under pressure.
5. Can you pivot with the ball?
Ask the potential hire about a time something went wrong in a past campaign and how they responded. It’s a common interview question, but helps reveal how the staffer would handle the challenges facing an upstart organization. Every campaign is going to make mistakes; what matters is how you respond.
Let’s say you’re working a congressional race and you mail out thousands of invitations to a town hall event with the incorrect address. Are you willing to drive to the address you put on the mailer and wait there all day until they agree to rent you the building for that night? That’s the kind of pivot required early on in a campaign.
6. How do you handle disagreement?
We’ve established that your potential hire needs to have coordination and leadership abilities, but this person also needs to be able to execute on a decision he or she disagrees with. No matter how great your campaign team is not everyone will agree with every decision. Whether it’s the consultant or the candidate, eventually the staffer will be over-ruled, yet still have to execute. Look for a resume that doesn’t just have management experience and ask potential hires how they dealt with decisions they felt were wrong.
Rory McShane and Joseph Desilets are partners in the consulting firm 21st & Main. Follow them on Twitter at @RKMcShane and @JoeDesilets.