Politicians and the Job Search


September 19, 2013

I live in Massachusetts, where every other day is election day – or so it seems. If I get bored later today, I can stroll (bookless) down to my public library and vote in a mayoral primary. Our mayor wants to run for re-election, but not long ago he tried for (and lost) our open US senate seat.

We also have a governor’s race coming up – candidates are throwing their hats in the ring left and right. The latest is Martha Coakley, our state attorney general, who also ran for an open US senate seat a few years back. She lost to Scott Brown, who became our senator but lost his next election. His name has also been mentioned as a potential candidate for governor.

Do you see the trend here?

OK, that was a trick question – there are plenty of trends. Ambition run amok – check. Career politicians dominating the scene – check. Fewer and fewer political outsiders expressing any interest in these jobs – check (and who can blame us?).

I’ve noticed something else. Wanna-be public servants will apparently raise their hands for open jobs – ANY jobs – just because they can. Maybe they like the titles, the power, the fame. Who can say? But I know this: they aren’t giving much thought to whether or not their skills and experience match the demands of the job.

How do I know this? Because each of the politicians I mentioned above has applied (by running for office) for jobs that are as different from each other as night and day. It’s like the same person thinking he would be a world class park ranger but also a wedding planner. It’s certainly possible. But not likely.

What does a senator do? A senator becomes familiar with national and international issues, often specializing in one area of expertise (health care, foreign policy, education, etc.). Senators work collaboratively as small individuals in a large body, write legislation, meet with lobbyists, develop positions on the issues of the day, and respond to constituent demands. They are supported by staffs of experts that help them make decisions, manage their calendars, and get them in front of the right press (and say the right things, in accordance with their party’s soundbites). The job is in Washington DC and sometimes requires moving the family.

Now let’s take a look at the Massachusetts governor. This person is focused on our Commonwealth, period. He or she is the head honcho, the leader, the decider. Governors select their teams, manage complicated operations of all kinds (education, finance, transportation, tax policy, law enforcement, etc.). They have to be masters at budgeting and know their way around a P&L. This is an independent role, a leadership role, where the buck really stops. Wise decision-making and smart hiring are keys to success. And our governor lives at home, traveling around the Commonwealth but basically sleeping in the same bed as before.

To those who tossed around Scott Brown’s name as a gubernatorial candidate: What has he ever managed? He might have leadership cred from the National Guard, but that’s not the same as overseeing a $33 billion budget, public housing, health and human services, and everything else going on in the Commonwealth.

And Martha Coakley, if you were a perfect fit for US Senator two years ago, why are you governor material today?

I have nothing against Martha Coakley. As far as I know, she’s been a fine attorney general. Maybe she would have been a fine senator. Maybe she’d be a fine governor. But are we really to believe she is the best possible person for both jobs?

Anyone who’s hired for senior positions in a big company or a large nonprofit organization should look askance at such a claim. The same candidate who shows up to interview for the VP of Human Resources probably won’t show up later seeking the Chief Technology Officer position. What would that kind of switching tell you about a person? It would tell you that this person likes interviewing.

Which is perhaps the key to understanding the motives of the politicians I’ve mentioned already. They like campaigning. When asked what they’re good at, or what their strengths are, they recite the requirements of the job they seek.

The better politicians are at campaigning, the harder it becomes to determine what they’re good at. And if we are willing to hire the people who are best at winning elections, no matter what the election is for, then we get the leadership we deserve.

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