Ten Commandments of the GR Professional
There are many paths to success in the Government Relations (GR) profession, but all of them share some common attributes. After thirty-one years in the profession I’m often asked for advice on how to be effective, ethical, and protective of one’s reputation. Here are some thoughts on the “Ten Commandments of the GR Professional.”
First -- “listen and learn.” It’s important to be willing and eager to learn from those who have been battle-tested before us. The institutional memory of more experienced colleagues can be invaluable in providing advice they learned either the hard way (through trial and error), or more successfully by applying best practices. Tap that reservoir of experience. Avoiding a repetition of their mistakes, and adopting their best practices can accelerate your success. So, the next time you hear a colleague sharing a story about a recent campaign, treat it as an opportunity to discover a new best practice.
Second -- passionately protect your reputation. In this profession a reputation can take a decade to build and a moment to burn. Your reputation is determined not just by the accumulation of actions taken and promises made, but by the perception of them from your colleagues – including those you may know and many you may never meet. Protect your reputation carefully and consistently, like a garden that if nourished well will endure. Evaluate every decision and action according to how it will contribute to your reputation and legacy. As Thomas Jefferson once remarked, “ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.”
Third -- keep your word. In politics, keeping your promises is vital. Your word is your bond. An often cited quote gained prominence during the 1982 nomination hearings for Secretary of State George Shultz. After years in government service in Washington and in the private sector, Shultz was asked once again by President Reagan to serve. During his hearing, one Senator seemed to call into question Shultz’s integrity. His terse response still resonates today. He replied that he was taught by his mentors that “trust is the coin of the realm.” When pressed for clarification he said that in ancient Rome each province and city-state had its own currency that could be spent within their territory – but no where else in the realm. The only coin that was respected throughout the empire was the Roman coin. For Shultz, trust was the “coin of the realm” in politics and Washington. If lawmakers trust you to keep your word, then their doors will remain open to you.
Fourth, clean the slate at the end of every day -- One mentor, a Virginia Congressman, taught me my first lesson in Washington. He was in a committee markup when a colleague from California offered an amendment my boss opposed. His comment, meant to be jovial, incited a loud and passionate response from the west coast Congresswoman. The next morning, my boss called me in to say that in a few hours he would be offering an amendment that would be co-sponsored by the Congresswoman. I was surprised in light of the argument they had the previous evening. He replied, “you have to clean the slate at the end of every day. Today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s ally.” In the profession of GR it’s important to not take fights personally, and never burn a bridge that may be needed to unite with an ally on the next issue.
Fifth, never lie. In politics, it’s unfortunate how often truth is considered either flexible or optional. Never lie or knowingly mislead a lawmaker, staffer, or agency representative, and make sure that any client you bring to a government meeting understands this rule. At one Capitol Hill meeting I had a ring-side seat when a client refused to take advice leading up to the meeting and, consequently, committed the career equivalent of hari-kari. What he did not know, but would have if he listened, was that this committee chairman we were meeting with attended a hearing the previous day in which many defense programs were discussed, including the one this executive had come to discuss. After the exec described how outstanding the program was, the chairman asked about a recent test, which he knew had not gone well. The exec lied. Abruptly, just ten minutes into our thirty-minute meeting the chair stood up, thanked us both for the info, politely dismissed the exec, and told me to remain. I saw it coming. The chairman closed the door and stated firmly, “we’ve known each other for many years, right? If you ever bring that buffoon in to my office again, you will be persona non grata.” I told him I understood and apologized on behalf of the company. He never went to the Hill again. Tell the truth and insist your colleagues do the same. That’s the only way to ensure that you, and they, do not become persona non grata, and that the doors of government remain open to you.
Sixth, never treat the second tier as second class. Admiral Hyman Rickover, credited as the “father of the nuclear navy”, worked in Washington as director of Naval Reactors. Over his long career, he had to contend with thousands of integral, and sometimes recalcitrant bureaucrats – the second tier. It was not always smooth sailing. He once remarked, “if you’re going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you, but the bureaucracy won’t”. In 1990, I was reminded of his comments in a meeting between an Energy Committee chairman and the incoming Secretary of Energy, Admiral James Watkins. Watkins, a highly decorated officer, had retired from the Navy and was completing his first week on the job, and the chairman – who knew DOE well – wanted to know how the transition was going. “In the Navy I commanded the greatest warships on the high seas – aircraft carrier battle groups that stretched out for hundreds of miles. When I called down the ‘comm’ and ordered ‘rudder hard right’, I heard the command echo down, and within seconds the confirmation echoed back up ‘rudder hard right, sir.’ And then this great armada would begin to move…. Then I came to the Department of Energy.” His pride dissolved into puzzlement. “On my first day at DOE, I called down the ‘comm’, ‘rudder hard right’, and heard my command echo down. Within seconds the response from the bureaucracy came back up, “f-you, sir.” The chairman, not surprised, laughed at the description. “No one told me to expect such a response”, added the Admiral.
The second-tier -- whether executive branch bureaucrats, or Capitol Hill staff, are not always easily persuaded. Learn to work with the second tier, treat them with respect and seek common ground when possible, and be ready to justify your proposal clearly and convincingly. You’ll experience smoother sailing if you temper your expectations, and those of your clients, accordingly.
Seventh, understand that rules and ethics evolve. Stay abreast of changes and stay out of trouble. Minimum security prisons have been host to many elected officials who insisted on doing things their way for years, but failed to adjust when the standards they were held to evolved. Rules may often be “hard and fast”, but they are also amendable. As society evolves, and constituents come to expect and demand changes, it is vital that elected officials – and the GR professionals who interact with them – refresh their understanding of rules, regulations and ethical behavior. Stay on the right side of the rules, and you’ll remain on the right side of the bars.
Eighth, never give up. For the GR professional, “no” is just an interim reply. Success seldom comes easily or quickly, and any important policy change will require sound logic, persuasive presentation, a clear understanding of the motivations of all stakeholders – and a healthy dose of persistence. We’ve all heard Churchill’s “never give in” speech that rallied a nation at war. Keep his words in mind the next time you’re greeted with a chorus of “no’s” when you plead your case. As I sometimes remind myself – the goal should be victory, or victory delayed, but never denied.
Ninth, seek a win-win before a zero sum outcome. In every policy debate, there will be winners and losers. That’s the dynamic of a “zero-sum game” outcome. The former celebrate, while the latter experience disappointment and sometimes, unfortunately, resentment. As mentioned earlier in “clean the slate every day”, the GR professional knows that he or she may need these allies one day on another issue. One way to avoid any lingering resentment and retain a network of potential allies is to pursue a win-win outcome that benefits many while alienating few. Not every issue will present this option, but the most astute GR professionals always explore opportunities to assemble a coalition that can work toward a win-win solution. If you minimize the alienated, you can maximize both your network and reputation as a partner with whom your colleagues will be willing to work on the next issue.
Tenth, say “thanks” at least as often as you say “please”. You’d be amazed how often people march into the halls of Congress, or any executive branch agency, to plead their case – to “seek redress of grievances” in the words of our First Amendment. Often, but not always, these demands and requests are accompanied by the word “please.” Then, after months and sometimes years of diligent work, debate and deliberation, the finish line is reached. Sometimes there is success, sometimes loss, but more often it will be a negotiated compromise. Most government workers, however, will tell you they never again hear from the original public policy advocate or their GR navigators. Not even a simple “thanks.” Whether your efforts lead to success or not, always say thank you to the elected officials, appointees, staff and fellow stakeholders for their efforts. They deserve it, etiquette requires it, and your reputation will benefit from it. “Thanks” is one of the simplest and most powerful words to say, but one of the least often heard words in Washington.
One of the benefits of belonging to your professional association – in addition to the networking, professional development, and advocacy it traditionally offers – is having access to a ready source of colleagues who can offer best practices, and support your career. So, if you haven’t already become a member of the Government Relations Association (GRA) we encourage you to become a member today. Be a part of the fastest growing, globally-oriented association supporting today’s GR professional. Join GRA today!
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