How do women get in the room?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Unlocking the door to political decision-making

Unlocking the door to political decision-making for women“Decisions are made by those who show up.” Aaron Sorkin was right on The West Wing. Decisions are made by voters who show up to the polls. They are also made by those who show up to plan the campaigns of political parties.

But political backrooms of the past and present have not been the most gender balanced places.

And many people think it’s essential to change that. But is showing up enough?

Here’s some advice for women who want to get in the room. Hopefully you can shake it up a little once you’re there.

Don’t try to blend in. On the contrary, stick out.

Don’t mistake your audience for the boys in the room. Sometimes in our attempts to prove ourselves to our colleagues, we forget that our real audience is the voter. When you cultivate the ability to step away from the ‘inside baseball’ game of politics and see what matters to everyday voters, it’s a strength, not a weakness. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. You know stuff not only because of the intelligence and expertise you bring to the table, but also based on your experiences and priorities as a woman. That’s a great selling point as to why you should be there. And one of the many ways in which your presence will make a difference.

Plan a contribution that’s designed to win votes.

Getting in the room isn’t just about balance and fairness, it’s about getting the job done for your team. If you have ideas for where to find more voters and how to win them over, I’m listening. What matters to young voters? Are you connected to a particular ethnic group and their experience? What did you learn working a minimum wage job alongside other target voters? How can that help our campaign win their votes? When you bring voters’ voices to the table, your opinion carries more weight. But don’t forget to do your homework and think it through. I want a credible plan, not just a wild idea.

Be confident in what you do know.

As a young organizer, you may not know what happened in the 1993 campaign and the lessons learned there, but you can and should speak confidently about the things you do know. Because women are almost always more likely to be undecided than men in elections, the perspectives of women are particularly valuable to any campaign strategy. You know more about these target voters than any guys in the room. A campaign that doesn’t speak to women won’t move the voters it needs to win. To make that happen, I want you to speak out in meetings. Make sure you intervene regularly, and be decisive in stating your views.

Know what you don’t know.

Nothing fails faster than assumptions, guesswork and cocky arrogance that’s not borne out by results. When you know what you don’t know, you’re more likely to ask questions, investigate, and seek advice before making decisions. As a young organizer, I had a boss who asked me to double-check almost everything I did. It drove me crazy at the time, but I now see what a gift it was. I made fewer mistakes as a result. That is until he wasn’t looking over my shoulder...then I learned that assumptions are dangerous. Today, I spend a lot of time inflicting the same discipline on others. (I’m sure they’ll thank me later.)

Know when you have nothing to lose.

Guts are rewarded in politics and women are often cautious. While that caution can keep us from making mistakes (see previous tip) it can also keep us from moving up the chain of command. Don’t let fear of being disagreed with (or being wrong) keep you from speaking up. In my mid-20‘s I had to wrestle up the courage to tell a committee that an already-printed document contained a line I thought was a strategic problem for us. The document was reprinted and I ended up getting hired by people who had a hand in the original copy. Several of them, in fact. Conquering my fear paid off.

Ask the pros for assignments and listen to their feedback.

Successful people are often too busy to ask for help. But they are often open to someone volunteering an extra hand. It helps if you’re specific. Ask them if they have a problem you can help solve. Or come to them with an idea of something you think needs fixing. When you’re done, ask them what they think you could do better as well as what you’ve done well. Ask yourself the same question. If you want to grow into a better strategist and into more important positions, you have to really mean it when you say you want to learn.

Get outta town.

For a lot of women, particularly those with family responsibilities, it’s tough to travel. But working on various campaigns in various jurisdictions is how we build expertise and credibility. Wherever and whenever possible put yourself forward for out-of-town opportunities – and not just in the traditional campaign roles to which women are often assigned.

Cultivate your own candidates – including women.

It’s no coincidence that a lack of women in the backrooms is paralleled by a real lack of women in leadership roles in Canada. (Our record is abysmal in comparison to other countries. Look, for example, at how many women ran for and won governorships in the recent US elections.) One of the best ways to change the backrooms is to change who’s on stage. Look for women candidates to support, work for, and develop as potential leaders.

No job opportunities? Maybe you get a few minutes of their time.

Not everyone who’s willing to help you learn is able to give you an opportunity to work directly with them. If it’s not too much extra work, many experienced campaigners are willing to offer their advice, even to someone that’s on the outside. But don’t be a pest and take up too much of their time. Your job? Extract what works for you from their advice. What can you use to help you succeed? Realize their pearls of wisdom might not all be as valuable to you.

Look for opportunities to see how decisions are made.

Seeing and hearing how experts think through a problem to find a solution is far more enlightening than just being told what the final decision is. If you’re not yet at the decision-making table, and if you have a chance to work directly with senior strategists or communicators, ask for the opportunity to sit in on their discussions occasionally and see how decisions are made. But don’t abuse the privilege. Giving you an opportunity to learn isn’t the purpose of our meetings! It helps exercise your judgement muscles - even if you’re not an active part of the deciding. Just make sure you’ve crossed everything else off your to-do list. Because ....

People are counting on you. Make sure you deliver.

Don’t be so intent on impressing those who can help your career that you’re not respectful of your equals or people you’re supervising. For one thing, they could be your boss or client one day. But others are watching your working style, too. Your habits should show respect for the whole team, not just superiors: return calls and emails, follow through on what you said you’d do (or explain why you haven’t), deal with disagreements directly, share responsibility for failures and successes. We all want people on the team we know we can count on. When you demonstrate these skills every day - no matter how small the job - people will hire you.

As you move up, turn mentors into networks.

Finding a mentor is a great way to learn and grow as a political campaigner. But can you eventually grow out of your need for a mentor and confidant? Yes and no. A circle of people you can trust and rely on is critical to keeping grounded, confident and plugged in. Bouncing ideas around with others can help you develop your opinions and hone your arguments. But at the same time, it takes maturity to hold your own and not always look for advice from others. So build a strong network around you, and don’t be afraid to have your own opinion.

Originally published in Campaigns & Elections magazine.