When I was 29, I was named Deputy Governor of Illinois. The job meant overseeing the budget, operations, legislation, policy and communications of the fifth largest state in the nation.
I was totally unqualified. I also didn't know the terrain (other than going to law school in Chicago, I had no connection to Illinois).
But I worked very hard, took the job extremely seriously, and all in all, did okay.
So when people who seem unqualified and inexperienced are now being named to jobs in the White House or the Cabinet, I understand what they're going through. They're being offered the chance to do something really interesting, to serve their country, and to make a name for themselves. Of course they're saying yes.
When I took the job as Deputy Governor, I didn't realize what type of person I was about to work for. By now, everyone knows the tragic tale of Rod Blagojevich, but at the time, he seemed like a dynamic, forceful change agent.
But Rod's allergy to doing real work, understanding policy, negotiating budgets, reviewing legislation, focusing on operations and everything else that goes into responsible governing soon became clear, so I also know what it's like to work for an irresponsible, even unbalanced leader.
So for those now entering the Trump administration, what do you do when you have a crazy boss and the responsibilities of your job outstrip your experience?
Here's how I survived.
- Be very willing to say no. Rod and I fought all of the time. He always had a conspiracy theory or a grudge or some plan that was invariably a bad idea. It's no fun to have your boss scream at you 24/7. But, it's also how you stop stupid things from happening and how you stay out of jail. If you're not willing to fight - and to be fired for it - don't take the job. Yes, Trump's actual catch phrase is "you're fired", but it's far better to try to persuade him and his team to do what you believe is right and lose your job over it than to just nod your head and make bad decisions.
- Protect your employees from the boss. I spent so much time dealing with Rod and his issues (I had to once go with him to the tailor to try to get him to focus on whether to sign or veto a particular piece of legislation) that it sometimes made it hard to run the state at the same time. But eventually, I came to see part of my job as absorbing the boss' anger and craziness so that my employees were free to focus on their work. It's not a fun role to play but it can be an important one.
- Hire as much talent as you can get your hands on. This was Illinois so there was no lack of patronage hiring, but every time I had a key opening to fill, I insisted on filling it myself, reaching into my own network to find the smartest, hardest working people I could convince to work in state government. That way, as I was busy fighting with the boss, they could still do good work. Yes, insisting on doing your own hiring will piss off some of the high level political staffers who want to fill the spots themselves, but at the end of the day, you - and only you - will be judged for your performance (and the political people like Prebius, Bannon and Conway who you piss off by resisting their hiring suggestions could easily be fired before long anyway - don't forget who their boss is).
- Use the freedom. Rod, both logically and illogically, saw his job as running for office, not holding office (he would constantly say, "I did my job," meaning he won the election). In some ways, his refusal to focus on actual governing was maddening, but in some ways, it was incredibly liberating. We were free to come up with all kinds of new ideas and policies. Some worked (like tearing down the tollbooths throughout the Illinois Tollway system and creating open road tolling), some didn't (like importing cheaper prescription drugs from Europe and Canada), but we used the freedom to try all kinds of new things and that made the job interesting and worthwhile. It seems highly unlikely that Trump or his team will want to get into the details of how any federal agency works, which creates tremendous freedom to innovate.
- Focus on substance. The more Trump and his core team sign Executive Orders and propose policies that seem crazy to all but a handful of ideologues, the more you need to bear down and focus on the core work of your job and your agency. The contrast between the circus in the West Wing and you just working hard thoughtfully, creatively, and constantly will win you the respect of your employees, legislators, reporters and advocates. And that will allow you to get things done. Yes, the day to day work isn't as exciting as the sideshow, and of course, everyone wants to be where the action is. But the more you stay focused on the task at hand, the more you'll get done (and the only reason to go into government is to try to do new and interesting things; otherwise, it's not a good use of your time in the first place).
Working for Trump at any meaningful level is going to be extremely challenging to say the least. But any high level job anywhere, by definition, is difficult. With the right mindset, you can still get a lot done.
It won't be easy. It frequently won't be fun. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth it.