Life coaches can help politicians, too
You won a hard fought election, hired a top-notch staff and put together a strong agenda for the legislative season, but behind the scenes you’re struggling to build alliances, manage the office and keep your staff on message.
It might be time to call in a political coach.
“Most politicians see election as proof of their popularity. Maybe policy-wise, but everyone has room for improvement in their leadership skills,” says R. Alan Smith, founder of the San Diego-based political coaching company Build Momentum Now. “Very often politicians—just like CEOs—are great at what they do, but they’re so darn prickly no one likes working with them.”
Elected officials are expected to keep voters, donors, party leaders, groups and their family happy. And while most politicians are masters of schmoozing, many struggle with some of the finer points. Some loathe asking people for money, while others get prickly with staffers or mouth off about their opponents during interviews. Others have trouble talking colleagues into supporting their legislation. Smith says political coaching can help politicians work through these issues and develop a creative strategy to get things done.
Smith recalls one California legislator he worked with who had trouble managing his staff. When Smith took a closer look, he discovered the legislator had such little faith in the ability of his office, he would tell numerous staffers to tackle a job, expecting only one to get it done. When the staffers caught on to this, says Smith, everyone in the office assumed someone else would do it, leaving the job unfinished.
Another California legislator approached Smith about building alliances as a Republican in a body dominated by Democrats.
“It’s hard to know how you reach across aisles in an environment that is so polarized,” says Smith, whose clients are primarily Republican politicians. He worked with the legislator on a bill he was sponsoring to develop a pitch that would have cross-party appeal.
Geoff Thomson, co-founder of the Political Coaching Organization, says his consulting group’s goal is to get politicians to sit down and determine what they stand for, both ethically and in terms of policy, and create a strategy for using those convictions as a guiding force in their political careers.
“It’s not really about message specifically, but about how to be the most effective as who they are … and be able to deliver the message they want to deliver,” Thomson says.
Thomson has found that people who are new to politics tend to be more receptive to coaching than career politicians, but says politicians on all levels can benefit from objective outside advice. As an example, he points to the in-fighting within Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign staff, which got so bad the campaign stumbled on message delivery.
There’s no lack of people looking to give advice to someone in politics. But it’s important that politicians have a confidential, trusted adviser who can observe them, help build their strengths, and boost confidence in their leadership abilities, says Donna Zajonc, a nonpartisan political leadership coach. Zajonc, a pioneer in the emerging field, is a former Oregon legislator who co-founded the Bainbridge Leadership Center near Seattle.
“In the 1980s and 90s, corporate coaching and sports psychology both became associated with improving the way that people play the game, whether in the boardroom or on the tennis court. I realized that politicians could benefit from the same sort of concept,” Zajonc says. “Political coaches help people discern their personal strengths. It is all about finding out what you are good at and doing more of it. It’s a simple concept, but with the fast-paced life that politicians lead, it can be hard to learn to say no and to be accountable.”
Besides offering tips on how to put out personnel fires or get a former adversary to join the team, Smith says political coaching can help a politician develop a longterm strategy for creating a successful political career. Whether someone wants to stay in politics for three years or 30, a coach can help them think through their vision and stick to it, she says. It’s not just about getting on the key committee, but being a key player while there.
“If you’re going to go to Congress and be one of 400-plus members, how do you position yourself to get noticed? If you want to run for president one day and you’re a lowly congressman, how do you achieve that trajectory?” Smith says. “It’s about how to win friends and influence people, not just win elections.”
Beth LaMontagne Hall is a frequent contributor to Politics magazine.