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This Is DC’s Unsung Skill, From the Capitol to K Street

Are you ready to humble? Knowing what you don’t know is the best way to get ahead

Arshi Siddiqui’s first job at the Capitol had her answering phones and sorting mail. Now she’s a partner at Akin Gump. (CQ Roll Call)
Arshi Siddiqui’s first job at the Capitol had her answering phones and sorting mail. Now she’s a partner at Akin Gump. (CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Every fall, requests for coffee from friends and friends-of-friends seeking career advice inevitably increase, particularly during election years as people assess potential opportunities at a current or new job. These conversations often remind me of my first Hill job, not due to any shining or standout moments, but because the lessons learned during those initial eight months remain relevant to the career advice I give today.

I began my job search with a fresh law degree at the age of 24 saddled with $100,000 in debt, all in the hopes of fulfilling a long-standing dream of working on Capitol Hill. My grand vision quickly crashed into reality, and I considered myself fortunate to land an entry-level Hill job answering phones, sorting mail, and drafting constituent letters for what was essentially an extended interview for an upcoming legislative opening. 

Today, after multiple jobs in the public and private sectors, I have found that a broad range of experience helps inform successful legislative strategies. That said, the fundamentals I gleaned early on continue to guide me in my daily interactions. 

Strength in numbers

First, nothing of significance in Washington is ever done alone. This quickly became clear sitting at the front desk of a congressional office, where various staff and outside forces would try to shape daily decisions on scheduling, staffing and prioritizing legislative issues. Even the most basic decision could be sunk by the right person, but additional support generally counterbalanced any such effort. Learning which people or organizations to target, and how to approach them successfully, was often a catalyst to a favorable outcome.

Of course, the notion of coalition building is not groundbreaking. Yet, Washington is a place where personalities, competition and long-held beliefs can inhibit collaboration and progress. Successful careers often involve avoiding these pitfalls wherever possible. (Being lucky also helps.) This observation has proven to be even more true via my work in the private sector. A broad-based coalition of stakeholders can move mountains with the right groundwork and good timing.

Don’t scorn the small stuff

Second, execution on the little things goes a long way. On-the-job experience defines our world, and it is hard to make a case for upward mobility without fully embracing your current set of responsibilities.

I have been struck by how small interactions have morphed into job opportunities or launched important relationships that have proven to be useful over the years. For that reason, whether as a staffer or as a lobbyist, reliability and attention to detail help ensure a path to bigger challenges and opportunities. 

Known unknowns

Lastly and most importantly, the notion of “knowing what you don’t know” and proceeding accordingly is an unsung trait of skilled professionals in town. Second and third chances cannot be taken for granted in Washington, and I can recall countless situations where unforced errors or missed opportunities have resulted in serious ramifications.

Those who are secure enough in their capabilities to augment their skill sets as necessary — whether by seeking additional advice, pulling in another team member or exploring other options — continue to thrive in the most challenging of situations. Knowing when, and how, to leverage knowledge and expertise is crucial to ensuring successful outcomes.

One of the benefits of working in Washington, whether in public service or in the private sector, is the breadth and depth of talent surrounding us all. This pool of talent has been a critical part of my professional development, with exceptional individuals helping me along the way. I have also benefited tremendously from the inevitable disagreements associated with working on a complicated issues. Some of the most valuable insight comes from a robust dialogue over strategy and approach. These types of discussions help forge a better path forward or, at the very least, confirm that the current trajectory accounts for every contingency.

At the end of the day, Washington continues to be an amazing place to build a career — a magnet for smart and driven individuals motivated by being part of the policy process. And rather than being bound by a rigid blueprint for success, each of us finds our own path based on our strengths and interests, allowing for growth every step of the way.

Arshi Siddiqui is a partner at Akin Gump. She previously was a senior policy adviser and counsel to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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