Claire Stein-Ross: Strengthening Operations for Political Campaigns and Organizations
Political campaign operations consultant Claire Stein-Ross is the principal of CSR Operations, a consulting firm that helps organizations and political campaigns run more efficiently. During the 2018 election cycle, Claire served as the Operations Director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure program. Her background includes five years of experience in Senator Martin Heinrich’s office, serving as a fundraiser for the Heinrich campaign, and conducting public opinion research at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. We chatted with Claire Stein-Ross about her approach to operations in the realm of campaigns and beyond.
What inspired you to start CSR Operations?
I have been lucky to work for places that really valued and were willing to invest in building out strong operations, which I view broadly as the systems and processes that help teams do their best work. At the IE program we always said, “our operations are our strategy,” and I think that’s true whether you’re running a large paid media program or a small nonprofit. But I know there are lots of great organizations that might not have the resources to make the same investment and saw an opportunity to offer really flexible and tailored services to help fill that void.
What are the most common mistakes that organizations and political campaigns make when it comes to managing and retaining staff?
A common mistake across industries is hiring people because of how impressive they seem without matching them to the skillset needed for a particular position. You might find someone who is smart, capable, and fun to work with, but that doesn’t make them right for every job. A campaign’s compressed timeline can magnify this—you find someone you like, you hire them, you move on to the next thing. But thoughtful hiring can save a lot of time and stress later on... you don’t want to realize someone isn’t in the right role in the midst of a stressful campaign when you don’t have time or capacity to remedy the situation.
Once you do have great people on your team, make sure you’re setting clear and realistic expectations. Internal communication is hard—and there is no single right way to do it—but even the most talented staffer who doesn’t know what they are supposed to be working on or why isn’t going to do their best. Don’t schedule meetings just for the sake of having them, but you should have some kind of regular check-ins. When you have ongoing and consistent communication channels, you’re more familiar with your staff and their strengths and weaknesses. You will be better able to identify capacity or performance problems before they get worse, or new projects or training that might help a staffer grow.
What kind of processes and behaviors do set a team of any kind up for success?
One of the most important processes a team can establish is around approvals: who needs to sign off on a decision, and how do they communicate that sign-off? This may sound obvious, but when the chain of command isn’t clear, it’s easy to make mistakes (which on a campaign could mean the wrong version of an ad goes up, or an important deadline gets missed). Everyone should know what their individual role and responsibility is in this process, as well as everyone’s else role.
On a related note, think about how your team saves information. Any shared documents should have a standard folder structure and file naming convention that is easy to decipher. Workflow should never be dependent on a single person knowing where something is or what something means.
Can you give some examples of why a political campaign should have an employee handbook?
The bad rap HR gets is that it’s only there to protect employers. While that is certainly part of HR’s role, good policies should benefit both employer and employee.
Your employee handbook doesn’t need to be 50 pages long addressing every possible situation (it could even be bullet points!), but clear policies laid out early on can help create an environment where people feel valued and part of the team. On a campaign, this is especially important because everything moves quickly, staff might be spread out, and people are often wearing multiple hats. A handbook should cover things that affect the day-to-day (conduct, taking time off, reimbursements) and the things everyone hopes don’t happen (like harassment).
Plus, a handbook applies the same rules to everyone. If staff don’t know whether or when they can take a day off if they need to, or which expenses are reimbursable, then the only people who will take advantage of these benefits are the ones who proactively ask—which not everyone feels equally comfortable doing.
How would you respond to a political campaign manager who says the day-to-day is too busy to make room for formal processes regarding hiring, onboarding, and human resources?
Formal processes don’t need to be complicated; they just need to be clear and usable. In almost every situation, having a process on the front end will save you time later on when you never have enough of it. Providing some rules and structure allows you—and everyone else on your team—to focus on your actual job. If you’re spending time in week three sorting through an HR issue that could have been prevented with an earlier staff training, or if you’re just trying to find a document someone didn’t save in the right place, you’re not focusing all your energy on voter contact.
In addition to the built-in time constraints, campaigns are high-stress and high-stakes. This environment makes it more challenging to make thoughtful and systematic decisions no matter how good a manager’s intentions are. Adding some formal processes inserts those good intentions into the campaign’s infrastructure.
What should political campaigns and organizations be aware of when it comes to hiring with diversity and inclusion in mind?
Finding staff through your personal networks can be great and valuable, but it can also help create a team that looks just like you. Share job postings widely and think about any resources that might exist in the specific community in which you’re working (or that exist nationally, like Inclusv). Then, make sure when you’re setting up interviews that you have a diverse pool from whom to choose—basically, the Rooney Rule. (Again, that sounds really obvious, but it’s easy when you’re swamped to move quickly and not even realize that you don’t!)
Honest communication can be hard on even some of the most functional teams. How do you recommend approaching difficult conversations that organizations or campaigns need to have?
This is another benefit of building strong internal communications channels—it helps make the tough conversations a little easier because you’ve already built a framework of respect and collegiality. But when difficult things do come up, you need to be clear and objective. Practice what you want to say so you feel more comfortable delivering the message and aren’t as worried about picking the perfect words in the moment. Center the conversation on what is important for the team as a whole. If it’s a conversation with multiple people, also offer a way for people to ask questions or follow up with you privately in case there is anything they don’t want to share with everyone.
Are there any tools you recommend for organizations and campaigns looking to maximize their efficiency?
There are lots of great tools and what’s important is finding something that fits your team and what you’re trying to do. The things I would keep in mind when choosing one are:
Usability: Is this a tool that actually makes work more efficient, or is it hard to learn and use so it actually adds a lot of busy work?
App/mobile functionality: Is this a tool that has an app or at least functions well on a mobile browser?
Integration: Is there a tool that integrates well with the platforms you are already using?
Cost: Is this tool worth the cost for the value it’s providing to my team?
Thank you Claire Stein-Ross for answering our seven questions.