Ann Marie Habershaw, chief operating officer of Obama for America during the 2012 cycle, has now taken the COO reins at the digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive.
C&E: How’d you get started in campaigns?
Habershaw: I volunteered on Bill Clinton’s ’92 race in Rhode Island. I was an accountant at the time so I had a very logical mind, but I loved the excitement and the energy. The great thing about getting involved in campaigns is that you can do anything you show that you're good at.
I would take on anything — machines breaking down, figuring out how to schedule people. I realized, as I continued to volunteer on campaigns and get a greater interest, that these were business operations in a way. You're raising money, you're spending money. You're bringing on staff, opening offices and I really just decided to learn about them.
I figured out how to get on a campaign through networking. I had a few jobs — call manager for a candidate, fundraiser. Every single time I would just take on more and more, and learn more and more. It went from managing the money to managing people to managing contracts to assessing what systems or databases we we're going to put in. I've been there every step of the way. I love never sitting still.
A few years after I got started, EMILY's List happened to be looking for a controller. Lo and behold, there was me with my financial and accounting background and also I been on a campaign they were supporting. And they thought ‘wow, this is someone who has a skill that we need to operate this organization, but also understands what we're doing.’ When people ask me why I've been so successful whether it was at EMILY’s List or the DCCC or the DNC or the Obama campaign, I have always understood the work that the organization does.
C&E: How does a chief operating officer fit into a campaign?
Habershaw: That is what I focus on. What is the goal of this organization and how can I help build an infrastructure to support those efforts? You have to create an environment which allows your team, whether at a committee, campaign or a firm, to be creative and innovative and deliver quality work.
C&E: Is it hard to apply business practices to the relationship-drive campaign industry?
Habershaw: Campaigns, particularly large campaigns, are businesses on the back end. They need a significant number of services from a multitude of venders. In the campaign business, there are sometimes a set group of people that you've worked with before but business does the same thing. There are RFP [request for proposal] processes in campaigns as there are in business.
I don't think there are a lot of differences [between campaigns and business] when you’re talking about hundreds of offices, thousands of people and the significant amounts of money involved in running a large operation.
I believe that all of these different processes cross over. I also think there is a reason why so many businesses, particularly the technology firms in the shared economy are going after the people who've worked on campaigns regardless of which side of the aisle they're on. It’s because they understand that people who work in campaigns have a lot of incredible skills that can crossover to corporate America.
C&E: What was absent from the campaign world that you saw in the business world?
Habershaw: I don't think campaigns always thought about things in the business frame of mind. When I first got into campaigns the focus was on raising money. Less of the focus was on, how are we spending the money? And how are we thinking about our resources, particularly staff?
What I brought into places like the committees when I first got there is [the attitude that] we have to negotiate contracts as strong and as hard as the private sector does. We have to think about knowledge management the same way. I looked at everything from how the phones are negotiated to how the network is built out to how we were keeping track of the information the political folks are bringing in from a business perspective.
Campaigns are only a short amount of time. If you're running for reelection, they almost always have a new staff. On the committees between election cycles things turn. How do you maintain that information that the team develops so you're not recreating the wheel every cycle?
C&E: Does the COO have to be an enforcer for a presidential campaign?
Habershaw: Well, you have to set up a system where you can manage the flow of a billion dollars and the activities of thousands of people in offices across the country. That allows you to make sure you are on budget, makes sure you are following federal election law and also prevent [scams] from happening. What you want to do is put in a structure that can do what you need it to do but not inhibit the ability of your team to do their jobs.
C&E: What advice do you have for campaigns to avoid being victims of fraud?
Habershaw: I would encourage candidates with smaller budgets to find people that really like this side of the work. Not everybody wants to raise money, not everybody wants to knock doors but there are a lot of incredibly smart people who want to get engaged in campaigns that do have financial and business backgrounds.
The important thing is to look at your size and figure out the system that you can put in place. What we call it in accounting school is separation of duties. You don't want the same person writing the checks who’s balancing the checking account. You don't want the same person who’s writing the checks approving the bills. You have to sit down and figure out, how am I going to have a system in place if someone decides to do something that I don't want them to do? How am I going to notice that bubble up? It’s definitely a challenge when you're a smaller operation.
C&E: What's a common mistake you see campaigns making?
Habershaw: There's not a list. If someone's running for office, they need to find out if they have to incorporate. What do they need to file with the state or federal government? It’s the same things that challenge a small business owner when they decide to open. People really have to think thoughtfully about who they are, what they want to be and the structure they need to put in place to get there.
C&E: What advice would you give to young operatives or consultants wanting emulate your career?
Habershaw: They need to get out there and work on a campaign. If they're in high school, they should be thinking about town or city council races. If you're in college, you should be doing those races. You have to get out there and understand the nuts and bolts. I didn't just walk into EMILY’s List and say, ‘Wow, I have a degree in accounting let me do this.’ I did a couple of campaigns and learned how they work. That has been incredibly valuable.
Campaigns today need engineers, they need coders and accountants. They need specialists in communication across the spectrum. There’s a whole backend that needs to be operated by people with skill and strategic understanding. Whatever your interest is, there’s a spot for you. Just go in and find a niche.