The business of political and public affairs consulting, in its modern form, is two generations old, and now receiving the attention it deserves from the investor community.
But a slew of factors that have brought changes recently to the industry — the growth of mega firms, COVID, work from home (WFH), #MeToo — means that effective management is more important than ever.
What does that mean for historically small businesses with cyclical revenue cycles? A place where millions of dollars pass through the computer of someone barely out of school, while someone 500 miles away is deciding if your shop should be part of their roll up? It means it’s time to get your act together, folks — if you want to retire.
In fact, now is the time when you implement your own trajectory. Getting your business in order means effective management, not exactly a strong suit of many consultants. To help guide my fellow practitioners, I want to highlight the five dysfunctions of a team, which were first identified 20 years ago by management consultant Patrick Lencioni.
We addressed these in our first political digital company in 2010 and it absolutely saved us. These dysfunctions are: (1) absence of trust, (2) fear of conflict, (3) lack of commitment, (4) avoidance of accountability, and (5) inattention to results.
Teams that address these five dysfunctions thrive. Teams that let them fester will fail to grow. Before we get started, it’s important for you to know that it’s normal for most organizations to be dysfunctional. Left to itself, corporate culture rather naturally turns toward dysfunction — perhaps because we, as humans, are all imperfect.
That said, let’s run through each dysfunction:
Absence of Trust
Like Maslow’s hierarchy, trust is the base dysfunction. Without trust, colleagues won’t allow themselves to feel vulnerable to lean on each other. In that case, you don’t have a team, you have a bunch of independent consultants with similar looking business cards.
Trust in leadership means you can only lay people off so many times after Election Day before it becomes impossible to attract and retain talent. Trust in your team means trusting them to work from where they need to work, post-COVID. And trust in each other is good business because it eliminates the need for expensive policies and procedures. I don’t believe in big HR departments. I do believe in hiring good people and rewarding risk.
Fear of Conflict
If your internal meetings are boring because you avoid controversy, you’re doing it wrong. You should be able to call BS, respectfully. Office politics in our line of work can be ugly. We’re intense. We’re political. Backchannel communication is what we do. But those skill sets that make us so good at our jobs have stood in the way of normalization of the business of politics and public affairs. If your team has established a baseline of trust, you’ll not fear conflict because everyone knows it’s for the good of the team.
Lack of Commitment
The product development lifecycle speed for most of the world is unacceptable to political and public affairs clients. I’m not the only one to cringe when presented with a one-year plan to implement a new technology. We need to move fast and not break things.
At our company, it took us about 90 minutes to commit to supply path optimization (SPO), and how to integrate AI into our targeting and reporting tools. Deadlines help, but people are either built for politics and public affairs or they’re not. Smoke that out in your interview process.
A subset of lack of commitment is lack of alignment.The most egregious cases of lack of alignment in politics and public affairs are often compensation (comp) plans because of the unique nature of early career growth in our business. A bad comp plan is a cancer. It took years to get right at my first digital advertising company.
Avoidance of Accountability
I was nearly fired in front of the entire company for bullying another account executive early in my career. I deserved it. It never happened again. Our CEO made me accountable before it metastasized.
Without a doubt, the industry is working to move in a better direction, but change starts with you. Firms need to establish a level of accountability, internally and externally, in order to be successful.
Inattention to Results
Political and public affairs spending grows faster than the U.S. GDP and is largely unaffected by recessions. If your revenue doesn’t grow cycle over cycle, you’ve messed up.
Smaller political and public affairs consulting shops often don’t have the resources for weekly profit-and-loss (P&L) reports, but you’ve got to find a way to track numbers even if you don’t have a floor of business planners.
Automate every bit of accounting you can. Your CEO should know these numbers without having to look. Ensure “it’s not my job” is never said.
Inattention to results is the pinnacle of the Five Dysfunctions and it’s the true measuring tape. If you’ve scored perfectly on slaying every other dysfunction, but at the end of the day you’re unprofitable, have unhappy clients or unhappy staff you aren’t paying close enough attention. It’s sort of like when the doctor says the operation was a success, but the patient dies the next day.
Avoid the five dysfunctions and a positive culture radiates to the customer, often your candidate or cause. You can tell a lot about the health of a political and public affairs consulting company by talking to a chatty employee. It’s hard to buy something from a person who hates their job. This is why we place such a premium on hiring right and reducing turnover. And remember, if you see something, say something.
Jordan Lieberman is the CEO of Powers Interactive, a programmatic media company.