Chief Counsel: Reach Beyond the Hill, and Bring Staff Into Searches

Posted November 19, 2008 at 3:24pm

What is the best way to find and attract talent around the country and from a Member of Congress’ home state?

[IMGCAP(1)]A: It seems each new Congress brings with it an overwhelming need for offices to recruit talent. While many chiefs of staff anticipate hires for numerous positions come January, you are a step ahead for thinking about sourcing new talent prior to having the vacant positions. Too often, chiefs find themselves rushing to fill vacancies rather than waiting to find the ideal candidate for the position.

As chiefs of staff, hiring often feels like a distraction from your more urgent work, yet sourcing talent should be as routine as reading Roll Call. In other words, organizations well-known for their talent are constantly on the lookout for individuals who would enhance their work.

One of the most important ways to find talented people is to ensure that you know exactly what you are looking for. You need to make sure your Member and your staff are on exactly the same page for what each staff member needs to deliver — then you can turn to novel sources of candidates to find the right person.

Let’s take a scheduler, for example. A scheduler posting often looks something like this: “Texas Republican seeks D.C. scheduler. Must have exceptional communication and organizational skills. Prior scheduling and Hill experience strongly preferred.”

While this announcement may bring in a pile of résumés — many from the same pools of people that everyone else solicits — it fails to distinguish itself in terms of the outcomes you hope to achieve through the position or screen people based on their successes in prior positions.

Consider the following alternative posting: “Texas Republican seeks D.C. scheduler. Must present proven track record in providing superb customer service, preparing detailed documents, using technology to track multiple communications and supplying information to colleagues and constituents. Proven success in an intense work environment, demonstrated flexibility, and ability to learn specific process and procedures are essential.”

What is different about this second posting? While the first posting may attract those candidates who worked for another Member for 12 months as a scheduler and are looking for a new Member (or chief of staff) with a different “style,” the second posting will attract alternative candidates from off the Hill who may have a combination of experiences in areas such as retail and using customer management systems that provide the perfect mix for the outcomes you expect of your future scheduler.

Before requiring Hill experience in a job posting for all jobs in the office, think hard about why that Hill experience matters for success in the job and whether that can be learned and exhibited through previous jobs. Attributes such as superb phone etiquette and a track record of learning and adapting to different work environments may outweigh one’s knowledge of where the tunnels are located. Again, our goal is to expand the number of possible candidates for positions and ensure that the candidates actually can accomplish the necessary tasks to be successful in the position.

Now that you know what you’re looking for, according to ghSMART, a talent consulting firm, by far the best source for recruits and applicants are referrals from current and past employees from their personal and professional networks. These individuals are not only able to find talent that fits the needs and culture of the organization, but they also help recruit the candidates to the office by sharing their own experiences. They advise, as a result, that whenever you meet outstanding people, in addition to your reason for speaking with them, inquire about other potential contacts they know who might make a great addition to your organization.

Using ghSMART’s advice, when you meet talented people in your state or district, why not end that conversation with the simple question: “I have really enjoyed working with you and appreciate the skills you bring to your role. Who are the three most talented people the Member should pursue who one day might join our organization?”

It is then up to you to contact these individuals, stay in touch with them, and then pursue them when a vacancy opens. And remember, as talented people, they will know other potential recruits. Therefore, the chain can continue and introduce you to additional candidates.

Because of the strength of staff’s personal and professional networks, consider providing an incentive to staff for identifying candidates who ultimately get hired. Possible incentives include a spot bonus or an extra vacation day. Alternatively, you can set expectations for each person on staff to provide a few candidate referrals over the course of the year. Each member on staff should be invested in supplying a constant source of possible additions. By setting the expectation that they are responsible and can take credit for acquiring new talent, you share ownership with the office for creating a productive and healthy office culture.

Too often, chiefs of staff fail to disclose staff departures until they have been replaced by the next candidate. This strategy not only prevents staff from providing possible candidates to fill the vacancy, but it also contributes to paranoia and rumors in an office environment.

Open communication about arrivals and departures in your office will only enhance your office environment by establishing trust and respectful communication. Furthermore, when the new staffer arrives in the office, she will likely feel more welcome as your staff has felt part of the process in recruiting her. Research shows that introducing candidates to future colleagues in the recruitment process increases their chances of a successful transition.

Now, once we get the candidates in the door, we have to interview and check references to confirm that, in fact, they can fulfill the expectations of the job. But that guidance will have to wait. The art of interviewing and reference checking deserves its own column.

Meredith Persily Lamel is director of training and consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation. She works with chiefs of staff to implement strategic plans and improve their management and operational effectiveness. Click here to submit questions.