Effective management in the campaign space
Loren Merchan on building better work environments for political staffers
Welcome to Campaigner, a weekly newsletter exploring the tactics that drive winning political campaigns and highlighting the players pushing the buttons. Produced by Arena & FWIW Media.
We’ve heard this from nearly every Campaigner we’ve interviewed thus far: working in politics can sometimes be messy. Campaigns often prioritize moving fast and winning at all costs, to the neglect of effective management strategies and staff well-being. For this week’s Campaigner, we dug into this issue with Loren Merchan, an experienced campaign leader and President of Authentic, who is passionate about learning and sharing best practices for campaigns and organizations to implement.
Q&A with Loren Merchan on effective management in the campaign space
Campaigner: You’ve worked in politics and the progressive space for quite a while, and now you co-lead a major Democratic digital firm at Authentic. One thing I’ve heard over and over again from these Campaigner interviews is that working in politics can be messy, and campaigns don’t prioritize management training enough. What’s your take on that?
Loren Merchan: I absolutely agree. One of my highest priorities and greatest passions is in the management piece of this work. It’s definitely something that I saw was missing when I entered the (political) space, and it’s so hugely important on so many levels.
Managers touch everybody at a company or campaign. It makes a difference when it comes to employees' quality of life, growth and development, equity, the work that we're doing for our clients, and just everything. I spend a lot of time focusing on how we can have some of the best managers, and overall how we can have a less chaotic and more supportive place for people to work. So for us, in addition to sending all of our managers to the Management Center regularly for training, we’ve implemented a number of tools, including our own internal manager onboarding and evaluations. We go in-depth on things like regular positive and constructive feedback, goal setting, defining roles and setting expectations, policies and processes, one-on-one meetings, checking for bias, identifying and working with different strengths and weaknesses, and so much more. It's like a six or seven-part onboarding. When we have our managers who manage managers, we're also working with them on how to effectively do that, how to give them feedback, how to evaluate their performance as well.
Campaigner: Why do you think that the campaign space is kind of notorious for chaos and poor management? Is it just the fast-paced and short-term nature of campaigns?
Loren Merchan: I do think that's part of it. I think there are a couple of things at play there. First, this idea in the political space that managers should be good at managing is kind of new. Previously, people became managers because they were good at their specific job. (Knocking doors, fundraising, social, etc.) It’s a completely different approach than actually having someone be a manager because you think that they are good at management. Managers should be good at things like helping people grow, teaching, identifying issues, and strengths and weaknesses, and so on.
We also just have a very sink-or-swim mentality in politics. Some of it comes from the fact that a lot of times we're like flying by the seat of our pants. Not just because of the speed, but because of how things change. Especially in digital, how we do things is always changing. But my argument is that despite that speed and mentality, there are still management fundamentals that we can have in place in order to help people succeed.
Campaigner: Even taking that step to break into management can be difficult. Particularly women and staffers of color face institutional barriers getting into leadership roles on campaigns and in the Democratic ecosystem. Can you talk about some of those barriers?
Loren Merchan: There are very obvious biases that exist just in our society, but beyond that, one of the biggest issues in our industry is how insular it is. People are often given opportunities because of who they know. That means it's really hard to break in and advance in the industry, especially because the existing leaders and decision-makers are those with privilege and they likely know others who are just like them.
There's also that issue that we mentioned earlier of moving quickly, even more so than in the commercial space. We have a really short period of time for a campaign to exist, and as a result, people often don't wanna take risks by hiring somebody without the exact experience they want or somebody that they don't really know of. Again, it's that kind of sink-or-swim mentality. At Authentic, we try to hire early, and we've implemented onboarding and training processes with the goal of supporting employees and setting them up to succeed.
I can go on forever, there are so many barriers, but I think the one other one I want to touch on is this idea that because we are passionate about changing the world, everyone should be able and willing to make all kinds of personal sacrifices. Things like accepting lower wages, working late nights and weekends, not taking time off, and so on. Sometimes these things are unavoidable, right - if a candidates’ debate is scheduled for 9:00 PM, there's nothing any of us can do about that. But if these are expectations that are constant, then you risk excluding parents, caregivers, those who are chronically ill or have disabilities, and so many others.
Campaigner: That kind of plays into my next question, which is how have you all approached intentional recruiting and retention of a team with different backgrounds at your agency?
Loren Merchan: I obviously want to start by saying that we're not perfect. I think there's a lot we've done, and our goal is to always be improving. I mentioned a couple of our approaches already, including always trying to make sure we're taking time to recognize our own biases. That’s both in things like training to making sure we have layers of review and approval on things, people from underrepresented groups also make up a majority of our staff and our leadership. We also try to address some of the issues I highlighted through things like schedule flexibility, unlimited sick and vacation policies, competitive salaries, and excellent benefits.
Outside of things like benefits, one thing that is really important is rather than just implementing rules like the Rooney Rule, having a mentality of taking the time to slow down and think through what you’re doing. A lot of people in leadership roles just act - and in my opinion, it's either because they're very busy or they're very confident. But it’s always important to stop and actually think about what the decisions you're making really mean, what the results are that you're seeing, and how might these impact or be perceived by others with different experiences. Is there an opportunity to do something different that might be more inclusive or equitable? If you aren't sure, are you asking and seeking those answers? Some of it is about how to get people from underrepresented groups into leadership roles, not just hiring them. We've spent a lot of time creating and refining our processes for evaluations, raises and promotions, which we're still constantly reviewing and improving, but we ask ourselves things like: do employees know what they will be evaluated on in advance? How are we minimizing bias? How are we evaluating management ability? That way we are attempting to remove some of the bias from those situations.
As someone who's been at a couple of different workplaces, I’d sometimes have an evaluation and get a raise, but it wasn't tied to anything tangible, or I wouldn’t get a promotion and nobody would tell me why or what was required of me to be promoted to the next level or even what the responsibilities of that next level were and how they were different from what I was already doing. Making all of that available to people is really helpful there.
It’s important to constantly review and question things - especially things like policies, processes, benefits, and perspectives that have been in place for a long time. If something exists because it's how it's always been done, you should probably question it and maybe make changes.
Campaigner: What resources, whether from the corporate or political world, have been helpful to you as you focus on management, leadership development, and recruiting?
Loren Merchan: For a management perspective, The Management Center is the biggest one. I've been to their trainings a couple of times, and I'm actually doing another one this year that’s focused on racial equity and inclusion. We try to go periodically just to refresh. They also have a bunch of tools on their website, like articles and research. Sometimes if I’m working on something like our team evaluations rubric or whatever it is, I will look at the Management Center’s resources. I'll also do some Googling and get advice from trainers and experts, that we’ve worked with. I kind of just bring all those different things in as I'm working, but there's a lot out there to look at.
Campaigner: Last question! What’s your advice for junior staff who are trying to break into politics, or climb the ladder into leadership
Loren Merchan: I wish I had the magic answer to this one. The reality is that while there are still so many barriers, I do think that there are some individuals and companies and campaigns that are starting to improve. Building a bench of talent for the Democratic party is something that at Authentic, we're really passionate about. We do paid internships at $20 per hour in each of our departments several times a year. I know that to varying degrees, there are other paid fellowships and internships available in the industry. No one should have to work for free and have to figure out how to support themselves just to get that experience.
My advice is to get that first experience, and just keep doing what you can to make connections and learn about different things - not just the things that are your area of focus or interest. It's good to understand how the entire campaign ecosystem works. Having that general knowledge as you keep learning, and taking advantage of training and opportunities is great. Never turn down the chance to get to know someone in the industry. I want to plug that if anybody reads this and wants to chat, I'm happy to talk.
Loren discusses how important management is to building inclusive teams. Check out Arena’s Values-Driven Management guide>>
Arena is hiring a Chief of Staff. The position is fully remote, with some travel, and pays $70,000 a year. It’s a mix of admin, ops, and project management. Perfect for someone who loves to problem solve and support the behind-the-scenes operations of a high-functioning team. Apply by March 14 (next Monday)>>
That’s it for Campaigner this week! If you enjoyed reading this issue, give it a share on the socials! 🙏