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The Benefits of a Diverse Workforce on Capitol Hill | Commentary

By Bradford Fitch The hardest task in management is hiring. Everything else pales in comparison to the complexity of discerning the value and potential of an individual who you may talk to for an hour and learn a bit about through references, but who can determine the success or failure of the legislative or communications agenda for a member of Congress. A House district director called me some years ago, with a defeated tone, asking for help. “I’ve had two bad hires and the boss says I can’t have a third.” My reply: “Hiring is not a science — if it were, the CIA wouldn’t hire spies from other countries.”  

Capitol Hill is the National Football League of legislatures and gets the best and the brightest from each state applying for the few jobs available. The current freshman class will get thousands of résumés submitted. But the Congressional Management Foundation often finds legislators and their chiefs of staff have little training in the best practices of hiring, rely too often on unreliable references and are rushed through the process due to the pressing demands of Congress. After a few months of assessing a new employee’s contribution, they may feel like former CEO Jay Jordan, who said, “I hired your résumé, but what I got was you.” Congressional managers can be myopic in their hiring practices — looking at candidates through a small prism, missing creative candidates who may not fit into their preselected mold. Here are some tips for hiring that might help offices (both on and off Capitol Hill) avoid a disastrous hire.  

Hire Someone Not Like You . As human beings, we have a natural inclination to surround ourselves with people who share our traits, values and interests. But management research shows bringing together teams with dissimilar strengths is more successful. Innovations expert Steven Shapiro illustrated these benefits at a CMF training, when he told the story of a manager who had a major project underway. The manager was a creative type, and surrounded himself with a similar bunch. He loved coming to work, the team exchanged brilliant idea after brilliant idea — and totally missed its deadlines. Then the manager hired a few different types, detail oriented wonks who tracked the brilliant ideas and reminded everyone that, in the end, they had to produce a deliverable. The second team was wildly successful, and earned bonuses and promotions.  

Investigate for Behaviors You Want Emulated. The best interview question I’ve used in my 26 years as a manager is this: “What’s the one accomplishment that you’re most proud of?” One of the best answers I got was from an intern candidate, and the accomplishment wasn’t even on his résumé. “I was captain of my hockey team at Duke University, and we weren’t a team sport, just a club. When I became president of the club my senior year the school said we had to boost attendance or they were shutting us down. So I came up with a marketing and outreach plan and we doubled attendance in one year.” This young man who sold ice hockey to North Carolinians was one of my best interns.  

More Women in the Workforce Enhance Performance . Women face a lot of obstacles in employment, although Capitol Hill does better than nearly any other sector of our economy. More than 36 percent of congressional chiefs of staff are women, compared to 22 percent of senior managers in the private sector. A study of women on boards of directors of Fortune 500 companies showed boards with the most women outperformed those with the least women, with 16 percent better sales performance and 26 percent higher return on invested capital. “Having both women and men on boards brings varied perspectives and experiences to the boardroom table,” the study noted. “Diversity of thought counteracts ‘groupthink’ and encourages board members to consider a broad range of ideas and possibilities.”  

Creating a dynamic team — one that is more than the sum of its parts — is not beyond your reach if you remember these basic guidelines.  

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.

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