In earlier posts, I’ve outlined several of my leadership principles, including focusing on what drives your goals and testing your thinking against your moral and ethical compass. In this post, I’m sharing lessons #4 and #5.

 #4: Don’t expend political capital. Invest it.

When someone thinks about “expending” capital, they hold it close and use it sparingly. They say things like “Why should we help them?” and “What have they ever done for me?” And yet, political capital held too long and used too sparingly evaporates.

Instead of viewing political capital as something you expend, I think of it as something you invest. So rather than questioning why I should do someone a favor, I’ve always asked myself, “Is there any reason I shouldn’t help this person?” If someone is working toward a vision that is valuable to government – and you believe in the value of building and maintaining relationships – using capital with one group is an investment that builds your political capital with another audience or constituency.

Of course, investing political capital freely delivers more than immediate benefits. Government is a small world, and the individuals within it have long memories. There are countless instances where assistance given and respect built with a group or an individual can circle back many years later in the most unlikely circumstances.

Years ago, when I was Comptroller of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I was informed that a Commissioner of one of our human services departments was going to call me about slow payments to a provider group. Although the payments coincided with the implementation of a new financial management system, some research indicated that most of the issues were internal to his department. Rather than wait for his call, I reached out to him and offered an action plan to correct the problem. In addition, I sent 250 personally addressed letters to every organization in this provider group apologizing on behalf of the Commonwealth for the delay and assuring them a corrective action plan was in place.

Several members of my staff expressed concern that I was sticking my neck out on a problem that was not ours, and I could be inadvertently painting a bull’s-eye on my back. They saw the letter as expending political capital; I saw it as an investment with the Commissioner and others who interacted with this provider group. While my staff asked, “Why send the letter?” I chose instead to ask, “Why not?”

#5: Assume the best in others (until they prove you wrong).

This lesson came from a mentor of mine back when I worked in the Governor’s budget office in the late 1980s. It’s a principle that has stuck with me to this day, and anyone who has worked with me has heard me use this phrase.

In large, flat organizations like state government, people are often working at cross-purposes or have an initiative or action undermining another. What then ensues is the debate of who and how the “conspiracy” is being perpetrated. The tension can really escalate in times of political or budget crisis.

My mentor used to tell me, “Marty, when trying to decide between conspiracy and incompetence, always err on the side of incompetence.” The conflict is likely due to a lack of coordination or oversight rather than intentional.  I discovered that when you begin by assuming the best in people, sympathy and understanding replace anger – and discussions shift from finger-pointing to brainstorming solutions.

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Marty Benison

Senior Manager – Public Sector, North America

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