This post by Nick Mildebrath originally ran as a column at Campaigns & Elections.
As a candidate, hiring a campaign manager will be one of the most important decisions you make. It can make the difference between a successful campaign and one that languishes, and, ultimately, loses. When considering a prospective manager, many candidates focus on technical qualifications or professional reputation, but by doing this, they’re missing a key element of a successful candidate/manager relationship.
Again and again, we’ve worked with candidates who are frustrated that their managers are “too demanding” or “not proactive enough,” when in fact, their managers don’t clearly understand their candidate’s expectations. This disconnect doesn’t just lead to personal frustration — it leads to budgeting and scheduling mistakes, embarrassing messaging missteps, and bogged-down processes that will affect your campaign’s smooth operation and eat up your valuable time.
The most frustrating aspect of this phenomenon is that it’s completely avoidable. There are many different models for a successful relationship between a candidate, a manager, and a consulting team, but the common ingredient in all of them is a clearly defined, mutually agreed-upon definition of the manager’s role, and the right time to clarify the role of the campaign manager is before you hire them.
If you’ve already hired a campaign manager, and you haven’t had ‘The Conversation’ about the specifics of their role (and yours), have it today. If you haven’t made a hire yet, make it part of your hiring process.
When you sit down for The Conversation, begin with the big picture: are you looking for a strategic adviser, a campaign COO, someone to run your voter contact program, or something else? What specific expectations, big and small, do you have for your campaign manager? Communicate these expectations to your prospective manager in as much detail as you can, and consider their feedback on your expectations, as well. That feedback might change your vision for your manager’s role.
It’s just as important to discuss your own role as the candidate. How much of your time (and money, if any) are you willing to commit to this campaign? How much time, specifically, are you committed to spending raising money? Your manager is agreeing to make your pursuit of public office the center of their professional life; you owe it to them to be clear about your role in that effort.
Beyond the big picture, focus on the three most important resources in your campaign: the campaign’s budget, your time, and your message. It’s critical that every member of your team understand the authority that the candidate, manager, and consultants have over any decision that affects those three resources.
Some framing questions related to each of these resources are below; the relevance of the individual questions to your campaign will vary based on its size and budget, but the main point is the same whether you’re running for City Council or President: clarity today prevents confusion and frustration tomorrow.
Budget: Every campaign needs a budget. If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist. But who will draft and finalize the campaign budget, and who will update and enforce it? Are you or your manager permitted to spend campaign funds without approval from the other? (In other words, who controls the checkbook?) How will you report this spending to each other? Who will make decisions about hiring (and firing) other staff or consultants? How will that process work?
Time: Will your manager control your calendar and daily schedule, or will you? A campaign manager can be a valuable gatekeeper, but only if their candidate empowers them to serve as one. In many cases, a campaign manager sees every media request, press call, questionnaire, event invitation, or meeting request before you do.
Message: It’s critical to have processes in place to govern all things message-related. Who is allowed to talk to the press, and when? Can you talk to the press without your manager knowing? (Free advice: the answer to this question should be ‘no.’) Who will manage, and who will approve, your campaign emails or your social media posts? Who will draft and approve press releases and questionnaire responses?
These questions don’t all have “right” or “wrong” answers, but it’s essential that everyone agree on what the answers are.
The Conversation will make an enormous difference not only in your quality of life between now and Election Day, but quite possibly in the result on Election Night. You should have it today, and then continue it, working in close partnership with your campaign manager to make sure each of you is fulfilling your role, every day until Election Day.