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  Cultivating a Culture of Engagement
  Are You A Go-To Government Affairs Leader?
  Why Government Affairs Leaders Need To Get Serious About Strategic Planning
  The Unique Leadership Challenges of Government Affairs Professionals

Cultivating a Culture of Engagement

A few years back, I was hired to lead the federal government affairs program for a large national bank.  Early on, I was invited to a meeting of the company’s regional leaders to give a presentation on my strategic plan.  It was an evening event, the program was running behind schedule, and I was the last person on the agenda to speak.  I was prepared to talk about the legislative and regulatory risks facing the company, the internal communications structure I was setting up to keep people informed, and my goals for the company’s political action committee (PAC). 

As I got up to speak, the organizer of the meeting said to me, “You’ve got one minute.”

Anyone who’s been in the government affairs profession for some time, particularly for a large company, has been in this situation before.  We are often one of the last items on the agenda of a board of directors or executive leaders meeting, and our presentations are often truncated by time constraints. 

So I decided to use the situation to lay it on the line with the executives.  I got to the podium and said I would do my presentation in 30 seconds.  Then I asked one question:  “When Congress was debating the Dodd Frank Act, how many Senators and Representatives called you to ask you what you think?”  As I anticipated, not one hand went up in a room with more than 30 senior bankers.  Then I responded, “That’s going to change and that’s OUR plan.”

For many organizations, the government affairs function exists to manage a problem.  The problem is one of increasingly complex and ambiguous government regulation that creates uncertainty for business planning and operational success.  In general, people who run an organization, develop and sell products and services, or manage a profit and loss statement see government as a bizarre, incomprehensible, three-headed fire-breathing monster.  Engaging it elicits fear and loathing.  Understandably, they abhor the messy details of politics and policymaking.  They just want to know that the legislative and regulatory process is being managed, and that their government affairs people can be trusted to manage it.

This is a critical competency for government affairs leaders.  At a minimum, they need to be able to effectively monitor legislative and regulatory actions, prepare their company or trade association for new rules and regulations, and preempt potential threats to business goals and objectives.  But in today’s complex political and policymaking environment, effectively managing risk is just one of many competencies that are needed to successfully navigate the haze and maize of government.

Equally important is the ability to lead an organization’s key players in an engagement strategy that views government not as an adversary, but as a key stakeholder in the success or failure of the enterprise.  That requires having an executive presence that inspires others to act, and having the confidence to allow others to share in their success. 

For today’s successful government affairs leaders, it’s not enough to be just the manager of government risk.  Doing so can undermine their effectiveness and limit their value.  Instead, they must also work to create a culture where everyone understands that engagement is a shared responsibility.  They do so by articulating a shared vision and compelling value proposition, creating alignment with key stakeholders, getting buy-in at all levels, and playing the role of orchestra leader, where everyone has a role to play whether it is being the face of the company in meetings, contributing expertise to the policymaking process, or supporting to the PAC.


Are You A Go-To Government Affairs Leader?

While leading a government affairs team for a large company, I was also part of the management team that set operational policy for the legal department, despite the fact that I was not an attorney.  Leadership development was an important focus for the general counsel, and he shared with his management team an article from Corporate Counsel magazine entitled “Are you a Go-To Lawyer?” by Daniel DiLucchio. 

I mention it because the core competencies for becoming a “go-to lawyer” are just as applicable to government affairs professionals.  “Go-to lawyers are respectful yet not intimidated; confident but not arrogant,” DiLucchio notes.  “They are not only capable of understanding the client's objectives, but also genuinely try to help him achieve them.”

“Being a go-to lawyer isn't about being the most experienced, having the most responsibilities or holding the official client relationship roles,” he also states.  “Top performance is, instead, a matter of legal skill, creativity, engagement with the clients' problems, accessibility, enthusiasm, business savvy and good service attitude.”

It is not a revelation to anyone who works in the government affairs field that relationship development is an essential core competency.   Many government affairs professionals get hired out of government positions not only because of the knowledge they possess, but also because of the relationships they developed with key decision-makers.

But what many government affairs professionals that I speak with don’t fully grasp is that relationship development, like a coin, has two sides.  On one side are the people you need to know.  On the other side are the people that want to know – and need to know – you.

When your company or one of its lines of business is developing a new product or service, are you an integral part of the long-term strategic planning process, or do leaders come to you after the fact to “check-the-box” for compliance purposes?

When your trade association is going through a major mission change or reorganization, are you part of the team that shapes organizational strategy and culture, or are you on the outside of the information barrier, and presented with talking points after-the-fact simply to ensure uniformity of messaging?

When your client is under scrutiny by a federal agency or Congressional committee, are you asked to lead the strategy response, or are you simply given messaging points to deliver?

And when regulations or legislation are being drafted that impact your industry, do policymakers reach out to you for perspective and advice, or are you one of many seeking information and perspective from those policymakers?

The knowledge and social competencies that lead to desirable private sector government affairs positions are rarely enough to sustain our effectiveness in a highly competitive and rapidly changing marketplace.  There are many social people in the profession who struggle from the get-go to create real value for their organizations. 

The transition is particularly difficult for senior political appointees and congressional staff who, by nature of their previous title and position, are immediately identified as ‘go-to” leaders.  But when out of government, those titles and positions do not in and of themselves convey a “go-to” label.

To paraphrase DiLucchio, go-to government affairs professionals are not anointed; they earn the moniker.  They become trusted sources of advice both internally to business and organizational leaders, and externally to policymakers.

To earn the moniker and become a go-to leader, government affairs professionals must excel at both sides of the relationship development coin.  That means being motivated and strategic about their roles and responsibilities.  And it means having both the politically savvy and firm grasp of the technical matters that people depend on for sound decision-making.


Why Government Affairs Leaders Need To Get Serious About Strategic Planning

To government affairs professionals, the process of strategic planning can sometimes appear disconnected from their world.  It is frustrating to hear so many of my peers tell me that they consistently achieve objectives in the public policy arena, but are not appropriately rewarded with recognition and compensation.  This happens to government affairs professionals who work in companies, for non-for-profit organizations and even as consultants.

In most instances, the disconnect happens because strategic planning was not taken seriously.  Often, legislative and regulatory objectives were not aligned with shifting organizational goals and objectives, and actions were taken in the absence of sufficient collaboration.  That is Leadership Failure 101.

Many government affairs leaders come from cultures and environments (i.e., Congress and the Administration) where strategic planning is, unfortunately, not seen as relevant in dealing with one-year budget cycles and two-year legislative sessions.  Recently, I described to a group of government affairs professionals the strategic planning process I undertook as the staff director of a congressional committee more than a decade ago, and how it helped to keep me focused on what was important.  Some in the group expressed surprise that a strategic plan would even be relevant to the work of this particular committee. 

It is also not unusual for government affairs professionals to confuse strategic planning with performance planning.  While the two are directly connected, they serve different objectives.  Strategic plans have a long-term focus, with a mission statement that articulates the leader’s values.  They include goals and priorities that are tied to those of the organization, and strategies for achieving success. 

In contrast, performance plans contain short-term goals that are tied directly to the individual.  They are a human resources exercise that seeks to measure individual performance, and ensure the development of competencies that reflect the knowledge and skills necessary for success.  A performance plan should flow directly from a strategic plan.  If a strategic plan is done poorly, or not at all, it creates confusion, mistrust, and a general sense that one’s efforts are not fully appreciated.

Government affairs leaders today face unique challenges, particularly in large organizations.  They’re role is ubiquitous, and they must have technical expertise, broad knowledge of their industry and the public policies that impact it, and a detailed understanding of their stakeholders’ business models and strategies.  As a result, their strategic planning process must be comprehensive, thorough and serious. 

Among other things, a government affairs strategic plan must:

  • create alignment with the organization’s goals and objectives, not only at the top, but laterally and vertically;
  • create alignment with individual performance goals and objectives;
  • have buy-in among all stakeholders, not just those at the top;
  • create positive action and measureable outcomes (in other words, it must be realistic, not aspirational);
  • be honest about deliverables;
  • take account of the organization’s risk culture;
  • articulate a compelling value proposition;
  • reflect one’s desired status as a leader; and
  • allow others to share in the plan’s success.

Every government affairs professional, from the head of a team to an individual contributor, should have a strategic plan that paints their portrait as a leader.  If taken seriously, it will inspire confidence in them and their value proposition, and it will inspire a willingness by others to follow their direction.  It will empower action, create autonomy and promote stakeholder alignment that is critical to success.


The Unique Leadership Challenges of Government Affairs Professionals

Several articles and opinion editorials in major newspapers have noted how the changing nature of politics has reshaped lobbying.  More and more, government affairs professionals refer to themselves as “strategic advisors” who help their clients take a more comprehensive approach to influencing public policy.

In many of these articles, there is a not so subtle attempt to blame increased lobbying disclosure requirements for the growth of strategic government affairs, arguing that the shift away from direct lobbying is an attempt to evade registration.  While that may explain a small part of the shift, the changes taking place in the profession are real.

The government affairs function of any organization is more challenging and complex than it was just a few years ago.  Government regulation and political uncertainty have become an increasingly important part of business operations and planning.  And thanks to information technology, political power is more dispersed.  A homemaker in Ohio or a tech industry executive in California with the help of social media can have more of an impact on public policy than traditional shoe leather lobbying.

In other words, “government affairs” is no longer just a relationship game.  For many organizations – companies, trade associations and other non-profit groups -- it is a function that requires more sophisticated leadership skills, the ability to navigate and engage internal hierarchy at all levels, and inspire action.  Unfortunately, leadership development programs are not well-equipped to support the unique challenges of this evolving role.

Most government affairs professionals already have some core leadership skills.  For those that worked in Congress, in a state legislature or in executive branch policy positions, and have been part of successful legislative or regulatory initiatives, they know how to collaborate, get buy-in and alignment, and communicate effectively.  For them, the challenge isn’t about learning how to be a leader, but how to translate those leadership skills to different cultures and environments.

It is difficult to go from an environment where only results matter to one in which process is equally if not more important.  Large organizations, in particular, are confronted with significant legal and regulatory compliance requirements.  It’s not enough to show compliance.  They must prove that they have the governance processes in place to ensure that non-compliance doesn’t happen.  Even if there is no direct connection to what they do for an organization, government affairs leaders still have a responsibility to support bureaucratic rules necessary to promote operational discipline and regulatory compliance.

In addition, business leaders operate in a bilateral negotiating environment, where they sit across the table from a partner or potential partner and agree on terms that define outcomes.  In dealing with public policy, government affairs leaders operate in a multilateral negotiating environment, where multiple parties have a stake in the outcome and it’s difficult to determine which parties belong at the table and which ones are critical to success.  It’s no wonder that so many business leaders find Washington to be so dysfunctional.

Likewise, executives at public companies generally have to meet performance goals and objectives on a quarter-by-quarter basis.  It’s never easy to have to tell a business executive who is struggling to meet a tough revenue target to drop what he or she is doing to spend time focusing on a public policy priority that may or may not pay dividends or address a particular problem for a year or two or even three.

Like all organizational leaders, government affairs professionals need continuing professional development to expand their leadership capacity and become more effective.  But it’s a real challenge, first, to recognize the need and, second, to find the kind of support that takes account of the government affairs culture.
Most senior legislative and government affairs professionals that I know don’t like to show vulnerability.  They operate in a political environment where mistakes are often made, but rarely acknowledged.  In general, they have a can-do spirit and a belief they can accomplish anything if given the chance.  But inevitably, they are all hampered by organizational and cultural barriers that impede their success.

When that happens, it is difficult to find someone to confide in because established coaching and leadership development programs don’t really relate to what government affairs professionals do. When organizations do invest in leadership development, the programs tend to be designed for core mission leaders, and to promote executive succession planning.  While these programs provide valuable tools for unleashing creativity and empowerment, those tools are diminished when they are disconnected from the culture and norms that underpin the value proposition of government affairs leaders.


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