I recently read about a key figure leaving the President’s administration. I won’t name this person and I don’t want to get into specific politics here. This is more about how ideas and personalities rise to the point that they shape the realities we all must work toward for at least 4-year periods of time that we know of as presidential terms…
The longer you are in federal service, and if you rise to a level that has at least a bit of influence, you come into contact with various public leaders that carry their philosophies, grudges, idiosyncracies, and agendas with them to VERY influential places. These are the people often referred to as career senior executives. Mostly these people have strong drive and many have some pretty strong egos. If you are lucky, a good proportion of them don’t let their egos drive their most important decisions. But egotistical or not, at least these folks have collected a lot of experience along the way that has some merit in shaping the future.
Then there are elected officials. These are the folks that have all the ego and stamina to sustain themselves through successive elections, campaigns, fund-raisers, etc. What makes them tick? What makes them keep going? Many are idealists, who care about the future of their constituents and have a passion for learning how to shape that future. Others have the egos that drive them to crave adulation in the form of votes, media attention, and power. Unfortunately, benevolent or not, that passionate pursuit of elected office doesn’t often afford much time to learn the details of how things work. Legal and management professionals most often pursue political glory. They understand politics, they understand processes and laws, and they usually understand communication. But technology, science, medicine, manufacturing???? That’s where the consultants come in….
I’ve had lots of experience with consultants. I’ve seen the best of them in action. I’ve seen how some of them get started. I’ve seen some disappear into oblivion. Unfortunately, many elected public figures are very dependent on consultants. The higher you are in the political stratum this is particularly true. It’s not that the politicians want to be dependent, it’s just that consultants are everywhere and their baubles are very shiny. And politicians need to at least be perceived as understanding some of the most complex issues, concepts, and processes.
Let’s analyze the consultant. There are big consulting firms and large lobbies. Consulting firms and lobbyists are pretty much the same beast. When it is a central mission they’re after, they are hired to deliver that message in timely, persistent, and compelling ways. They are often led by very driven people with money and/or ideals propelling their zealotry. But they need an army to hit all the places that decision-makers frequent — conferences, fund-raisers, town hall meetings, government procurement seminars, exclusive watering holes, country clubs, etc., etc., etc….
This brings me to how the big consulting firms recruit. This is a time-tested formula I have witnessed and validated often. They go to colleges looking for the brightest, shiniest, in-crowd, most appealing graduates. Think the articulate cheerleader, the handsome football player (a skill position player), the suave fraternity president. Even the bubbly sorority girl who gets an ‘A’ on her Cold War political science paper when she routinely confesses to me that she doesn’t understand geopolitics!!! Uhhhh….. Just momentarily obsessing over a past injustice. Anyway, the goal is to give these pretty, young prodigies a script they can internalize and deliver in a glib, confident manner. If they are successful, they have mesmerized the most hardened bureaucrats because they sounded really good and looked even better. If you’ve peppered them with enough reality and tough logical questions, they often wilt. But then you have earned attention from one of the ideologues in the background. Quite a bit less attractive, but particularly more substantive, the ideologues are still selling the same product. But at least they still understand why they are selling it and they are masters at the deal. This is the same tactic used to sell cars.
Now there is the INDEPENDENT consultant. This is typically the brainiac that got great grades and routinely argued with his college professors. After graduating at the top of his class, he gets a high-paying job with a think tank, the CIA, a Wall Street firm, IBM, or some exclusive software company. After a short few years working horrendous hours, belittling his co-workers, and condescendingly dismissing his superiors, he decides he’s had enough of being a “team player”. He is smarter and more ingenious than any of his so-called peers. He will out-work all other competitors. And his clients can’t help but succeed wildly if they will just sit down and listen to his wisdom. He talks a good game and working up a frenzy, he leaves clients with a lot of data, narrative, and direction. They are impressed because he sounded so smart and outlasted many of their hardest head cases. Then he leaves and nobody quite understands all the stuff that he left behind. The cycle continues because the independent consultant is good at finding people who know less than he does. And he’s good at talking around all the latest problems that vex business, industry, government, and POLITICS. The real downside is that he doesn’t have the patience to live with your organization and nobody likes working with him for long periods of time. Many of these types ultimately find happiness railing against the establishment on the Internet.
So, what does this have to do with the Presidential aide who recently left the Administration??? Well, when I plug his name into Google, I find that his previous position was with a self-named consulting firm with average employment of 1, making an average annual income in the mid 5 figures. His business specializes in technological innovation and commercialization. Sounds an awful lot like an independent consultant. And it sounds a lot like either he ran out of patience with the White House, or perhaps they ran out of patience with him. I can definitely say that as a career government employee I am among the many who must figure out what to do with the stuff he left behind.
I am tempted to name the name, but as I consider the reaction, it occurs to me that this one person doesn’t really matter all that much. Because there are scores of others just like him that are still working in our nation’s capital selling their stuff. They are not the ones doing the work, nor will they be doing it in the future. But we will be the ones cleaning it up in the long run. Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or Zebra-striped Libertarian, it all comes down to the quality and character of people you ask to help you. Just please, please, please take a long time to consider what their qualifications are, what they’ve accomplished, and whether they will commit to stick it out with the people who will be left to do the work.