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Waging a Campaign For Political Talent

March 31, 2003
Related Topics: Featured Article
Senator John Kerry, perhaps the next president of the United States, wouldn'tbe good for business, couldn't make up his mind about whether he was for oragainst the Iraq invasion, but doggone it, he knows how to run a workforce.

    The Bostonian--a recipient of a Silver and Bronze Star and three PurpleHearts for his service in the military--ought to get something for hisrecruiting and workforce-management efforts, which have resulted in his beingthe front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Many of thetechniques Kerry has used to get the most well-known and experienced campaignerson his team have parallels to corporate America. Included in the Massachusettssenator's bag of tricks:

    Training potential employees. Like a corporation that trains employees forprojects that the company may not even be able to afford right now, Kerry isn'twaiting until his employees have something to do before putting them to work. He'susing his political action committee to train future campaign workers and thenrelocating them throughout the United States to work on other campaigns,according to the Boston Globe. Jamil Khan, political consultant for the Carol/TrevelyanStrategy Group, which has advised campaigns around the world, says that this is"both an effective and smart thing to do. The Kerrys of the world get to sendtheir young talent to other campaigns to learn the ropes and make their rookiemistakes. By the time their own campaigns roll around, they've got a cadre oftrained staff ready to go."

Many of the techniques Kerry has used to get the most well-known and experienced campaigners on his team have parallels to corporate America.

    Flouting conventional wisdom by letting people know you're a winner. Manycandidates play the "expectations game." They talk up all the reasons whythey're underdogs, and then when they get only 17 percent of the vote, theytry to convince everyone they're superstars for surpassing expectations. Kerry'smessage, on the other hand, was that if you want to work for a winner likeMicrosoft or Dell, come work for me. Kerry tells me that he wanted not only towin the primaries a year from now but also be "first out of the starting gate"right now, in order to attract top talent. This strategy has enabled him to signon a combination of Gore/Lieberman veterans, top money people from MichaelDukakis's campaign, top senate operatives, and Democratic graybeards. "Theend result has been that he definitely has the highest-grade staff of all thepresidential candidates right now," says Josh Kurtz, political editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

    Hiring people before there's work for them. Woe be to the company thatwaits until the economic expansion picks up speed later this year to recruit orre-recruit the top talent in its industry. Candidates who snooze will lose.While Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman was waiting to decide if he was goingto run or not, Kerry signed top Democratic operatives. "This campaign movedearly and aggressively to try to lock up the very best talent in the Democraticparty," he says, adding that he looked for people throughout the country whobelieved--as he does--that President Bush is sending the nation in thewrong direction. Kerry's signees include Chris Lehane, who was a spokesman for then-Vice President Gore in the 2000 campaign, as well as top political consultant Robert M. Shrum. Rumor has it that Kerry has been paying some people to sit around and donothing--not such abad strategy if it keeps key people from working for your competitors.

    Extending the workplace culture to recruits. Last fall and winter, Kerrybegan connecting with potential staffers before he officially announced a runfor the White House. He invited prospective campaign employees to his Georgetownmansion for get-togethers. Kerry got to meet people who could be working forhim, and potential campaigners were made to feel a part of the process beforethey were on board.

    John Kerry is a liberal who is married to Teresa Heinz, a millionaire thanksto her family's ketchup company. The race for the nomination may come down toKerry, the more conservative Joe Lieberman, and Florida Senator Bob Graham. Allhave reputations for being relatively well liked, hardworking, honest,experienced, and knowledgeable. That brings us to Kerry's edge in the talentsweepstakes and reminds us of what Carly Fiorina says about workforcemanagement: "People make up the business, and the business with the bestpeople wins the competitive battle." Kerry's people will leave Lieberman andGraham at an enormous disadvantage, the same place workforce-management kingslike Google, the New York Yankees, and Starbucks have left their competitors.

Workforce, April 2003, p. 80 -- Subscribe Now!

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