Let me help John Kelly out: 9 rules for White House staff in plain terms

John Kelly Chief of Staff

Looking at the home screen of Alabama Today last night, I noticed that the posts reflected that, in the fleeting time since leaving town for a college reunion in the great state of Colorado, the world had turned upside down.

Not only was it a shake up for those whose lives and livelihoods depend on following the comings and goings at the White House, but also for those who follow Donald Trump‘s administration and actions of his staff.

My last post was about the short-lived career of Anthony Scaramucci, “The Mooch,” as communications director.

I didn’t get a chance to get the spelling of “Scaramucci” down (without double-checking it) before he was gone. But, alas, bye-bye. Don’t let the door hit you and all that — on better thought, go ahead. You deserve it.

(For the humanity rant: Who sends the mother of their child a text message after she’s given birth to your child who’s in a NICU? Estranged or not there was no recovering from that factoid. Insults to senior white house staff aside I can think of some much better names than “The Mooch” for you on this one.)

One only needed to read the New Yorker to know how short a life span would be for a comms director who didn’t have the wherewithal to go off the record before losing his mind. Even in a Donald Trump White House, Scaramucci’s tirade was over the top (and that’s saying a lot).

Revisiting my first thought, perhaps the world is not upside down at the White House. On the contrary, maybe, finally, it is coming right side up.

In his short time, there it seems as if General John Kelly is demonstrating that he is up to the task of getting the ship in order. Let me tell you, I know — from firsthand experience — there are significant challenges (though most of them not insurmountable) which come with working with, or for, an elected official who’s never held office.

Kelly is off to a great start, identifying some of the biggest problems and attempting to fix them.

In my years working for and around those who have never held office, here are some of the biggest challenges I’ve seen them face — due to staff ego and/or inexperience — and how to fix them.

  1. Exploiting the previous relationship with the boss

Look we know you were in the trenches with him/her before things got real. When no one was paying attention and your odds were in the single digits. You were at the table giving advice and pep talks before going home to family and friends needing your own.

Here’s the thing: Whatever title and job you have now, “official cheerleader” and “national brainstormer” is not it.

You were hired to do a very specific job in a very specific way and if you weren’t your first job is to figure out what you should be doing and then run that by the COS. You may want to be the guy/girl in the room for every meeting, solving every problem, addressing every issue, but the only person with that job is the chief of staff. So, step back and look at what it is you were actually hired to do and do it.

Stop looking for the big guy to wink and nod at you and to invite you over for a quick chat or dinner. You’re serving him best when you’re doing the duties you’ve been assigned and are doing them well.

  1. Remaining in camps 

You came in before the primary. They came in after. You were brought in by Mr. Y and Mrs. W insisted they be hired. Suck it up buttercup.

The day you walked into your office everyone tossed their old jerseys, and though it’s not fair, yours was drenched with blood, sweat and tears; theirs still had the tags on it at the moment you’re on the same team now, and all that matters are the wins moving forward.

You can be nostalgic for how you got your awesome title and your pretty office without begrudging the guy down the hall for coming into his a different way. That guy down the hall needs to be your new best friend because that’s how this game works.

This is how future wars are won: Shoulder to shoulder with the guy who was there Day One and the guy who’s just starting his Day One.

  1. Ladder climbing 

You were there in the trenches, and you paid your dues on the battlefield of a crowded primary that was short staffed. You were laughed at when you told people who you believed in, and you were mocked when you insisted your guy was going to win. Now, all you’ve got for your trouble is a tiny space in the EEOB as an assistant to the assistant of a program you didn’t ask to be put in. (That is unless you’re one of the lucky ones not hidden away in an agency which the campaign pointed at throughout race as one that doesn’t even need to exist.)

Sorry, not sorry. That’s the way things go sometimes.

I’ve got good news and bad news: Good news — there’s going to be a lot of moving and shaking. Bad news — If you don’t stop moping around and become a standout you’re going to be passed over again, and again by the guy who’s doing the job they have, not the job they want. At the end of the day, that’s what you’re being paid for.

The guy who hired you didn’t hire you for the job you want to have, though maybe one day you’ll earn that opportunity he hired you for the pencil pushing task at hand. So get to it.

  1. Pursuing another agenda

You joined the campaign because the candidate spoke to you about a cause or two. They were going to shake up the world, and you would have a front-row seat.

A cause near and dear to your heart was going to be the first thing on the agenda once your guy/girl was elected. But guess what? The real world doesn’t work that way.

Timing is key to the success of anyone and anything in politics and no matter how much you push your pet project the only agenda that matters is the agenda that the whole team is behind at the same time. So, focus on what is actually happening around you not what you wish was happening.

Don’t shelf your big dreams and big plans for the matters that you care about but know that if you’re a team player and your boss is someone with integrity that your issues time will come.

  1. Challenging the system 

The system that is in place — be it an agency, a congressional office, or the White House — is one that’s been around a long time. The players and the set changes but overall, there’s a system and everyone top down has to work within it. Upsets and surprises may have gotten you to where you sit but consistency, trust and diligence will get the job done. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel just figure out how to work within it.

  1. Undermining authority

This is a big one. You don’t like your chain of command. You’re smarter than your boss. You should have a different job. Things should be done differently. Tough. Whining about it isn’t going to change anything. Get on board or get a new job. There’s constructive criticism then there’s the negativity that pulls down a whole team, that sinks goals and stalls efforts. You may be better and better but if no one trusts you because you’re known to gossip and plant seeds of doubts about every decision being made you need to go. Stay positive and remember that good managers and good leaders want to hear positive ways to improve not be caught in the middle of a middle school drama of mean girls.

  1. Having a side hustle

You’ve got the magic keys to power and might now but don’t let that get to your head. Spend your time doing your job not the job you want next not the one you think you can do. You’re not human resources you shouldn’t find your closeness to power as a way to get your friends and family hired. You may owe people favors but be judicious in paying them back. Your name wasn’t on the ballot and your debts aren’t your bosses’ debts. Focus. Focus. Focus.

  1. Accept that you’re not always going to be the smartest person in the room anymore 

If you went from one of a few (or a few dozen) on a campaign to one of the lucky ones chosen to remain on as the staff, you need to accept that you’re not necessarily going to be the smartest guy/girl in the room anymore.

If you’re good at doing your job and preparing the elected official to get a job done you’re making sure that they have the best resources at hand. Sometimes, that means people who make your thimble of knowledge look as shallow as it is. That’s not a bad thing.

Being the person who can say you don’t have all the answers but can find the person who does is a lost art. Put your ego away and work hard to serve for the betterment of the mission.

  1. Tell your boss no! 

Respectfully, of course. One of the best things we can do for those we work for is helping them see a different solution to the problem. Assist them to understand when to speak up — and when to shut up.

We have a responsibility to not just be a yes, guy to challenge the easy way and the status quo and to make a difference. Going back to earlier rules note that you may not get to take this directly to the boss but bring it to your supervisor and (for the love of all that’s holy) don’t gossip and cause interoffice strife. If your advice goes unheeded, suck it up or leave. Those are your options a coup against those higher than you aren’t.

These would be a few of my rules to start.

It seems Kelly is well on his way to instituting some military-style discipline and structure to a White House with a man who likes chaos at the helm. He’s got the right attitude (that he can’t control the boss), but he can control the flow of information and the flow of people to the boss.

Here’s to hoping.