I often think people put a little too much emphasis on that old political adage “it’s not what you do, it’s who you know.” While failing up is a tried-and-true method of climbing the greasy pole in politics, unless you go full career bureaucrat in the administrative state, you really can’t get away with gross incompetence. (If you do dream of becoming a career bureaucrat, I’m so sorry for whatever happened to you in your childhood.) Mediocrities may move up, but those who are truly good at their jobs find their way to the top of the heap a lot faster.
Well, I should put an asterisk next to that last point. Being good at your job in politics—like in any industry—is the most necessary component of success. But it’s hardly sufficient. For better or worse, it’s both what you do and who you know that matters.
No matter how much GOP Jobs might be laboring to insert a little more meritocracy into the hiring decisions in political offices across the country, the truth is that knowing someone on the inside sure does help a lot.
However, lest you think that primo spots are reserved only for the children of top donors, the cousins of influential journalists, or the perfectly coifed candidate cultivated for years through conservative colleges and fellowships, the truth is actually much more benign.
Most of the time when folks are looking to fill a slot on their team—whether it be in a political office, an advocacy group, a think tank, or anything else—they not only put a job posting online, they also ask their friends if they can recommend anybody. A hiring manager may well find the best candidate for a legal counsel in the open labor marketplace, but that same manager would fail to do her job if she didn’t ask her friend from the Federalist Society if he knows any qualified candidates looking for a job.
That’s why the hardest part of getting into politics is just that—getting in. Once you’re in, you have the opportunity to be more than another resume on the pile. You can be the person others think of when they’re asked if they have someone in mind for… well, you name it!
There’s no way around it. Politics is built upon networking. But that doesn’t mean it’s all a smarmy game of use and be used. (To be fair, a lot of it is exactly that. There’s a reason why in DC the first question anyone asks is “Where do you work?”) The truth is, you’re much more likely to choose someone for a job if someone you already trust has done some of the work vetting the candidate.
Did he actually show up to meet you on time? Did he know how to present himself and when or if to make a slightly off-colored joke? Does she actually align with us and our mission?
It sure does save the person doing the hiring a lot of time if a trusted friend already has a great candidate in mind. But how do you make yourself that great candidate in mind? Well, you’ll have to read our next post for that…
How do you be that person who knows people? Here, nothing beats good, old-fashioned, retail networking.
I remember one of my old chiefs of staff on the Hill sitting with a group of interns over pizza one day during recess. I was there for the free food, which is one of the primary perks of being a Congressional staffer. Doesn’t exactly compensate for the low pay and long hours, but everyone loves free food, right?