How Working on Political Campaigns Prepared Me for Startup Life Posted November 2, 2016 by Steve Balik
I vividly remember one of the first questions I was asked in my interview for the Customer Success Manager role on CommonBond's Operations team last year: "Tell me about your experience on political campaigns. What was that like?"
The question referred to my previous work for the Suffolk County Democratic Committee and New York State Democratic Committee seemingly very different roles than the one I was applying for at CommonBond, a fast-growing fintech startup. While experience in campaign politics can be difficult to explain in an interview for a job in the private sector, as people outside of the campaign world often don't have a full grasp of what we do, I shared how the skills I developed in my work for political campaigns could translate into success at CommonBond.
This paid off, as CommonBond hired me to join the Operations team a few weeks later. Since starting my role at CommonBond more than a year ago, I've noted some distinct similarities between the work I did as a campaign professional and the work I'm doing now: both jobs are very mission-driven; are defined by scrappy, high-performance work environments; and require a few of the same skills and personality traits in order to be successful.
If you're thinking of making the jump from politics to startup life, here are some of the biggest overlaps I've observed, and how my experiences prepared me to excel in a startup environment:
Personal Investment in the Mission is Key
By working for political campaigns, you develop an overwhelming sense of purpose. You're doing the right thing and you're on the front lines, fighting tooth and nail for the good guys. In college, I was an idealistic political science major. After graduation, the idea of fighting for my core values easily lifted me up and carried me away.
As I got older, a bit of the idealism faded, but my profound hunger to do something meaningful and do it well remained. CommonBond was a natural fit for me because it gave me a chance to gain new, valuable experience in the private sector while maintaining the sense that I was doing something good and morally responsible. In my role, I feel as though I'm making a meaningful impact in alleviating the student debt burden for the 40 million Americans who have student loans.
Having a greater goal in mind motivated me to push through difficult challenges in politics, and it continues to motivate me in my daily work at CommonBond.
You Need to Be Able to Thrive in a Culture of High Performance
At CommonBond, we strive to be like a high-performance sports team. We have a strong desire to win, and we bring our A-game attitude to work every day in order to continue growing our business and serving our members in the best possible ways.
Campaign politics gave me that same mindset. Winning at all costs was my job, as it's the yardstick by which you're measured as a professional. Building your career means building a reputation as someone who gets candidates elected. On the campaign, we treated everything we did like it could be the difference in a close election. We worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end. We stayed until the work was done. Finishing early meant helping someone else finish, too, and then leaving together.
Thankfully, my schedule is more sustainable now, but the commitment to high performance is the same. Everyone at CommonBond is aligned to the same mission of improving the student lending experience for our members, and we work tirelessly to achieve this every day.
It's Critical to Adopt a Leadership Mindset from the Very Beginning
The culture and the nature of campaign work led to a set of expectations that forced me to be a self-starter and a leader. Grassroots campaigns consist of a number of organizers, each tasked with turning a list of potential supporters into a volunteer apparatus that persuades voters one by one to ensure they go to the polls on Election Day. Successful campaigns often start with empty campaign offices in April, but bustle with hundreds of volunteers by "Get Out the Vote" weekend in November. As a director of organizers, I had to think creatively about ways to attract new volunteers and interns to hit key campaign metrics. I also needed to foster an environment in which organizers could think of creative ways to attract new supporters to the campaign and feel empowered to make their own decisions.
There was always an eye toward scaling our team. We had to build an organization that could accommodate the hundreds of volunteers we'd attract on "Get Out the Vote" weekend. We had to be able to answer questions like: What are our best practices? How would they translate into an office with 10 times the number of people? Which volunteers could we develop into leaders? Which tasks should we delegate to them? How should we train large groups of new volunteers? The list went on.
These questions are similar to the ones we ask at CommonBond all the time: as we grow our member base, how does the Operations team scale accordingly? And how do we scale our Operations team in a smart, sustainable way? Sure, growing a business that will be successful for many years is far more complicated than building a campaign that lasts for one election cycle, but my familiarity with proactively addressing these kinds of problems has definitely been instrumental to my success in my role at CommonBond.
While on the outside, political campaigns seem a world away from fintech, my experience working for both has shown incredible similarities between the roles and skills and qualities required to be successful.
Now, more than a year removed from my interview, I'm convinced that my experience as a campaign professional was the best preparation for working at CommonBond that I could have had.
Steve Balik is Customer Success Manager at CommonBond.
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