Five signs you’ve picked the wrong chief of staff

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In an early episode of The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet instructs his Secretary of Agriculture, the designated survivor during Bartlet’s State of the Union address, which steps to take first should the Capitol Building get nuked.  “You have a best friend?” he asks.  “Is he smarter than you? . . . Would you trust him with your life? . . . That’s your chief of staff.”

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Gerald Butts and Dean French may well have met these criteria – at first.  (Technically, Katie Telford was and still is Trudeau’s Chief of Staff while Butts was his Principal Secretary.  If anyone would like to explain the differences in their responsibilities to me, please allow me a moment to slit my wrists.)  But you can’t trust a staffer who repeatedly makes headlines for very long.  With your life, perhaps.  With the life of your government’s reputation, not so much.

You may think it unfair to compare the two, since Butts arrived at his role with years of experience in government and French . . . didn’t.  But their falls from grace serve as excellent examples of how insufficient Bartlet’s criteria were.  If you ever find yourself in a position to select a chief of staff or similarly high-level hack, ask yourself these questions as well:

Are they smarter than you about how government operates?

The purpose of a CoS is to help move their boss’s agenda through the labyrinth of government.  To do that well, they need to have that labyrinth fully mapped out.  That means the ideal candidate for the position is someone who has worked in government before, ideally for many years and through progressively senior positions.  I emphasize “government” because people with equivalent experience in a partisan environment are less likely to know what they’re dealing with once their party wins.  A career bureaucrat is more useful than a career operative.

Are they good at building and maintaining relationships?

Something Butts and French definitely have in common are their failings in this department; Butts was (reportedly) as hotheaded and defensive as French was (reportedly) dictatorial and swaggering.  The ideal chief of staff is smart enough to know how to get their boss’s way, but nice enough to keep any opposing force close.  They should command respect on both sides of the aisle without letting that respect go to their head.

Do they have a good sense of who should be kept close and who should not?

Of course, anyone who is good at maintaining relationships will have a wide web of contacts, many of whose interests may have become radically different.  This is especially true in Canada, where the government/government relations revolving door spins fast enough to put the entire national wind power industry out of work.  A good CoS will never put themselves in a position even to be accused of a conflict of interest.  In a perfect world, no staffer would get hired until they personally called every lobbyist and consultant they knew and told them to go bankrupt and die.  They’d have to do it during the job interview so they didn’t have a chance to warn their friends of what’s coming.

What rules and norms are they willing to bend, and why?

Avoiding conflicts of interest is just one way a CoS must be an ethical paragon.  The broader question is, how far are they prepared to go to do their boss’s bidding?  Are they the sort of big-picture thinker who understands, say, that it’s more trouble than it’s worth to pressure a cabinet minister into going easy on a private corporation with a history of foreign bribery?  A good CoS will talk their boss down from doing something that may have short-term benefit, but will cripple their image for months if it gets out – and they will assume that everything has the potential to get out.

Do they want to be a celebrity?

If the answer is yes, cross them off your list of possible hires without a second thought.  A good CoS won’t even have a Twitter account, lest they make headlines for any snide commentary or protracted online arguments.  They must understand that it is their responsibility to operate so effectively and quietly that nobody in the outside world even notices them.  Being well-known in government circles is one thing; becoming a household name can only happen if they’ve screwed up one or more of these guidelines.  Look for a CoS who understands that you have as much to lose as they do if they become the story, and cares about you enough not to let that happen.

Photo Credit: Toronto Star

More from Jess Morgan.    Follow Jess Morgan on Twitter at @JessAMorgan89.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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