Seven First Steps for New Members of Congress (That Apply to New Leaders in Any Field)

Posted 11.19.2010

Capitolhill The orientation process of newly elected Members of Congress started this past week.   A long time ago, in a more bipartisan age, I helped organize a week long orientation program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for the freshman congressional class of 1986.  If I remember correctly they had spent an orientation week in Washington and them came up to Cambridge for a week of policy briefings.   I haven’t heard whether or not this year’s class is headed to the Kennedy School.  One thing I’m pretty sure of, though, is is that after a week of meetings and briefings in DC this past week, a lot of the new members heads are spinning from learning about all the things they have to get organized in a short amount of time.

A lot of what they’re facing is similar to what faces any new leader coming on board in a large, complex organization.  To succeed, you’ve got to get your feet on the ground quickly, determine your priorities and line your resources up against them.  The research shows that most new executives have about 18 months before they’re deemed a success or failure.  Since new members of the House will be up for reelection in two years, they’re operating on a similar time frame.

Earlier this year, a colleague shared a book with me called Setting Course, that’s produced by the Congressional Management Foundation.  It’s a guidebook for new Members of Congress and provides a step by step plan for getting up to speed quickly.  I was thumbing through it this morning and paying particular attention to the Do’s and Don’ts summaries at the end of each chapter.  There’s a lot of sound advice there.  Here are seven first steps I pulled out that, with some situational tweaking, seem to apply to any new leader, not just new Members of Congress:

1.    Set strategic goals and use them to guide critical early decisions such as budgeting and staffing.

2.    Learn to delegate – do the things only you can do and delegate the rest.

3.    Learn the rules behind committee assignments. Figure out which assignments serve your priorities.  Build relationships and make a case that can help you get the assignment.  (The non congressional version of this would be to learn the rules behind how things really get done and get yourself involved in those conversations.)

4.    Set up a management structure that keeps you informed, draws you into the right level of decision making and leverages your time and attention.

5.    Get your deputy and core team in place to keep the basics going in the short run.  Cast a broad net to fill in other key positions in the second three months.

6.    Be clear about the kind of role you want to play:  Legislative Insider, Party Insider, Ombudsman, Statesman or Outsider. Consider mixing two roles to increase your influence and impact.  (Of course, the standard roles outside of Congress are going to be a lot different.  I think the broader point is worth considering, however.  New leaders need to think about the way they want to approach their job and how they want to consistently show up to reinforce that approach.)

7.    Get your team involved in discussing strategic goals and planning how to execute against those goals.

So, those are some basic first steps.  What other advice would you offer to new Members of Congress or any leader that’s new to their organization?  (I’m guessing I’m opening up a can of worms with that question, but expect that will be part of the fun of the comments.)