When I was 29, I was named deputy governor of Illinois. I served from 2003 to 2006. The job meant overseeing the budget, operations, legislation, policy and communications of the fifth largest state in the nation.
I was totally unqualified. I didn't know the terrain. And, other than going to law school in Chicago, I had zero connection to Illinois.
But I worked very hard, took the job extremely seriously, and all in all, did OK.
So as people who appear to be unqualified and inexperienced are being named to high-profile positions in the Trump White House, I understand what they're going through. Who wouldn't say yes to being offered a chance to do something really interesting, to serve his country, and to be given the opportunity to make a name for himself?
When I accepted the job as deputy governor, I didn't realize what type of person I was about to work for. By now, everyone knows the tragic tale of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now serving a 14-year federal prison sentence. But at the time, he seemed like a dynamic, forceful change agent.
But Rod's allergy to doing real work, understanding policy, negotiating budgets, reviewing legislation, focusing on operations and everything else that goes into responsible governing soon became clear, so I also know what it's like to work for an irresponsible, even unbalanced leader.
So for those entering the Trump administration, what do you do when you have a crazy boss and the responsibilities of your job outstrip your experience?
Here's how I survived.
1. Be very willing to say no. Rod and I fought all of the time. He always had a conspiracy theory or a grudge or some plan that was invariably a bad idea. It's no fun to have your boss scream at you 24/7. But, it's also how you stop stupid things from happening and how you stay out of jail. If you're not willing to fight — and to be fired for it — don't take the job. Yes, President Donald Trump's catchphrase could turn out to be "You're fired," but in the long run it will be far better to try to persuade him and his team to do what you believe is right and lose your job over it than to just nod your head and make bad decisions.Donald Trump Evan Vucci / AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with House Republicans in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with House Republicans in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017.(Evan Vucci / AP)
2. Protect your employees from the boss. I spent so much time dealing with Rod and his issues (I once had to go with him to the tailor to try to get him to focus on whether to sign or veto a piece of legislation) that it sometimes made it hard to run the state at the same time. But eventually, I came to see part of my job as absorbing the boss' anger and craziness so that my employees were free to focus on their responsibilities. It's not a fun role to play, but it can be an important one.
3. Hire as much talent as you can get your hands on. In Illinois, there was no lack of patronage hiring, so every time I had a key opening to fill, I insisted on filling it myself, reaching into my own network to find the smartest, hardest working people I could convince to work in state government. That way, as I was busy fighting with the boss, they could do good work. Yes, insisting on doing your own hiring will tick off some high-level political staffers who want to fill the spots themselves but, at the end of the day you — and only you, will be judged for your performance as a leader. People like chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway may be upset with you for perhaps resisting their hiring suggestions, but it's possible they might easily be fired before long anyway. Don't forget who their boss is.
4. Use the freedom. Rod, both logically and illogically, saw his job as running for office, not holding office. He would constantly say, "I did my job," meaning he won the election. In some ways, his refusal to focus on actual governing was maddening, but it also was incredibly liberating. It allowed us to come up with all kinds of new ideas and policies. Some worked (like tearing down the tollbooths throughout the Illinois Tollway system and creating open road tolling), some didn't (like importing cheaper prescription drugs from Europe and Canada), but we used the freedom to try all kinds of new things and that made the work interesting and worthwhile. It seems highly unlikely that Trump or his team will want to get into the details of how any federal agency works, which creates tremendous freedom to innovate.Bradley Tusk Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune
Bradley Tusk leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse after testifying in Blagojevich trial in Chicago on Monday, June 21, 2010.
Bradley Tusk leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse after testifying in Blagojevich trial in Chicago on Monday, June 21, 2010.(Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune)
5. Focus on substance. The more Trump and his core team propose policies that seem crazy to all but a handful of ideologues, the more you will need to bear down and focus on the core responsibilities of your job and your agency. The contrast between the circus in the West Wing and you just working diligently, thoughtfully and creatively will win you the respect of your colleagues, legislators, reporters and advocates. Sure, the day-to-day work isn't as exciting as the sideshow and, of course, everyone wants to be where the action is, but the more you stay focused on the task at hand, the more you'll get done. Frankly, the only reason to go into government is to try to do new and interesting things; otherwise, it's not a good use of your time.
Working for Trump is going to be extremely challenging to say the least. But any high-level job anywhere is difficult. With the right mindset, one can still get a lot accomplished in the Trump administration.
It won't be easy. It frequently won't be fun. But that doesn't mean it won't be worth it.
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Bradley Tusk, the founder and CEO of Tusk Ventures and Tusk Strategies, served as deputy governor during Rod Blagojevich's first term as governor of Illinois.
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