NELLIGAN: There’s One Tactic For Getting Ahead In The Swamp That Everyone Should Practice

Jeff Nelligan Contributor
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When I set out from San Diego to Washington, D.C. seeking work more than 25 years ago, I went straight to Capitol Hill. Clad in a standard issue suit and tie and clutching a folder full of resumes, I walked into 190 House and Senate offices, the classic cold calling with the resulting cold if sometimes polite shoulder from 190 offices. It was an unimaginative, formulaic process but I was a hustler, dogged and good-natured, and I finally landed a post which over the years led to three other Hill jobs, two Schedule C appointments and a lot of mileage on campaigns all over the country.

I was hardly a standout — they know who they are — but I was dependable, methodical in my work and pathologically discreet. Throughout all these various posts and the shoe leather expended to get them, I learned a lot from trial and error, emphasis on the latter. I also realized that there was no manual — alas, no app — to explain how one navigates the political realm.

Hence, temporarily on hiatus from politics, I wrote such a manual, outlining the five characteristics I witnessed during many years and jobs, all five of which were uniformly ingrained in the successful politicians and staffers for whom I worked.

Now, for the individual new to the Swamp, and even those already sloshing through it, there is one reflex that every individual should develop: Always volunteer. Here’s an example.

In my second Hill job, I worked for a Committee Chairman who experimented with using colorful charts at events on and off Capitol Hill. The chart would distill a lot of numbers and facts in a lively graphic presentation, easy to grasp and all on a 3’ by 5’ piece of cardboard.

The moment my boss became enamored of using these displays everywhere, my goal was to become firmly ensconced as his Chart Guy so I immediately volunteered to produce them. This meant hours and hours with graphics professionals, getting everything wrong before slowly just getting it barely right, producing about ten drafts for every chart actually used. It was tough going in the beginning but I was stubborn enough to know one thing — the Chairman wanted the charts and designing them would be a great skill to have and give me a unique foothold in my post.

One day on the House Floor, my boss was approached by a junior member (who is now a major league morning television talk show host married to his anchor). The two staffers with him were loaded down with cardboard map tubes and binders. In despair, the guy says to my boss, “Bud, I’m begging you….got this Army Corps project in the district…levees…funding percentages…major-league hydraulics…EPA on my back…don’t even know where to start.” And here came my moment of triumph: The Chairman stared at him and then jerked a thumb at me, “Give it all to Nelligan. He’ll make you a chart.”

While this is small-time Nellie Hustle, here’s a big-time example. It’s usual and sublime Swamp tableau and I relate it with a certain tongue-in-cheek fondness for the setting and the individuals.

6th Floor Secretary’s Conference Room. It’s a meeting with the all of the senior political appointees, the fast-movers who run every aspect of the Department, and it’s presided over by the Secretary himself. He is enthusiastically going over his priorities and tells the assembled shock troops: “Ok, I’ve outlined these four projects and now I’m looking at you folks to carry them out.” You should have seen the faces up and down that conference table – a combination of uncertainty, angst, and terror.

One of the endeavors was planning and executing a 20-state campaign with the purpose of enlisting major health care providers in a nationwide electronic health records system. The Secretary envisioned a bus tour with stops in major cities; press events with relevant Members of Congress, White House types, Governors and Mayors; patient roundtables with major hospital and insurance and tech companies. “We can use the bus to get Members all over their districts,” he said excitedly, “They’ll jump at the chance to do this.”

As a low-level Schedule C appointee, I’d been kind of an all-around Fixer on a similar nationwide campaign a year earlier and I knew what it took. I’m sitting in a chair against the back wall of the room – my customary nearly invisible territory – as the Secretary waxes on and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Good Lord, whoever volunteers for this deal has a monster lift ahead of them – and I know who it’s going to be.’

“I’d be delighted to take this on,” my boss says cheerfully as every head in the room turns toward her. “Bingo” I mouth silently.

Years earlier, she’d been an obscure intern at an obscure agency. Year after year she had climbed rung after rung up the political ladder. It’s not just a Swamp story; it’s a familiar American story. She was an individual who always had her hand up…all the way to leading a $546 billion agency and all the way to this room and all the way to setting the Fixer’s agenda for the next three months.

For many individuals, perhaps volunteering means assignment to a thankless job. It must be; that’s why someone is asking for volunteers. But to someone on the move in the Swamp, there are no thankless jobs – there are chances. There is a reward, however intangible, in anything. Volunteering means exposure to new jobs, new people, new skills, new responsibility. I can’t emphasize it enough: Seeking out new opportunities was the defining feature of the successful politicians and operatives for whom I’ve worked.  Indeed, stepping up when others would not was the way my bosses consistently secured and enhanced their power.

Volunteering is the crucible of all advancement – it publicly demonstrates willingness and hustle and makes an immediate, and counterintuitively, lasting impression on a boss and peers.

As I noted, this habit is just one of the five winning characteristics outlined in my manual. But it’s arguably the most important. The Swamp is one of the most competitive places on the planet and initiative is instantly recognized. Why? Because it’s always easy to spot the guy with his hand up.

Jeff Nelligan served as a staffer for three Members of Congress and the GAO, was twice a Presidential appointee, and worked as an advance man on municipal, Congressional, and Presidential campaigns. The above is an excerpt from his book, Tales From the Swamp: Five Habits of Successful Politicians – Notes of a Fixer.