It takes a lot of energy to get elected. But that’s the time to think about how to accomplish things once in office.
It’s been said that there are two kinds of political candidates: those who run for office because they want to do something and those who run because they want to be something — that is, the motivation is more about their egos than the community’s needs. I’ve often seen a third type of candidate: those who run because they want to do something but don’t figure out what they want to do or how to go about accomplishing it until it’s too late.
Some examples of the third type:
• Two candidates for a county governing board emphasized during their campaigns that they were independent-minded. “I’m not running to be part of a team,” one of them boasted. “I’ll make up my own mind how to meet my constituents’ needs.” They both won. Neither accomplished anything that their constituents cared about.
• A woman running for a city council seat promised to bring civility to a fractious council. She had great interpersonal skills and lots of energy, and defeated an incumbent. She was a model of professionalism while on the council, but had no impact on her colleagues. Few voters could identify anything she’d done when she ran for re-election.
• A state agency head ran for a seat in the legislature, promising to use his experience to “make the trains run on time.” He won his election handily; the voters were looking for competence in state government. Alas, he wasn’t able to make any difference in state agency performance and retired two years later in frustration.
These were bright, well meaning people, but none of them took time before their campaigns started to think through a few key questions: Why were they running? What were the three or four most important results they wanted to achieve? Which candidates or incumbents might be natural allies on their key issues? Who would oppose them? And what are the keys to getting things done once in office?
If you’re thinking that these seem like obvious questions to ponder, you’re right. So what did these candidates do before they were elected? They focused all their energies on getting elected. They remind me of the Robert Redford character in the 1972 movie “The Candidate” who turns to his campaign manager after his amazing upset victory and asks, “What do we do now?”
Here’s a happier example. It’s about three candidates for city council. They were very motivated to achieve important results if elected. During the campaign they met every week. As one of them explained, “We needed to get a feel for each other. We knew that we weren’t likely to be successful on council (if we won) unless we started building bridges. And we understood from the outset that once you’re on council it’s easy to get overwhelmed by hundreds of emails, long issue papers from staff, phone calls and endless community meetings. We had to pull together before taking office.”
Their meetings involved several dimensions, Some of the exchanges became passionate; they didn’t agree on everything. All of the sessions were candid. But they all were aimed at developing that most precious interpersonal factor: trust. More specifically, they:
• Got to know each other. They hadn’t worked closely together in the past, so some discussions focused on learning about each other’s backgrounds, values, hopes and concerns. And they talked openly about the things that pushed their respective buttons. One of their early agreements: Don’t surprise each other.
• Identified priority issues. They talked about the problems and opportunities they each cared most about and the issues most important to the community. Over time, they found some issues that all three could enthusiastically support.
• Educated each other. At several sessions, one or another of them discussed an issue on which he or she had deep expertise and experience: planning, housing, economic development, education. As one of them reflected, “Not only did we learn a huge amount, but we also gained confidence and trust in each others’ abilities and knowledge.”
They also met with the two existing city council members, sharing their hopes, concerns and priorities. And they reached out to past council members who were known for their collaborative styles to seek their advice and wisdom.
All three won seats on the council. It’s too early to tell how much they will accomplish. But I’m confident that they will be successful. Why? Because they did the hard but critical work of building relationships, developing an agenda and thinking strategically before getting overwhelmed by what I call “the tyranny of the immediate.” Unlike the character in “The Candidate,” they know what they want to do now and have a strategy for getting it done.