HR Lessons from the Campaign Trail

A Q&A with Bernard C. Coleman III, featuring Winnie, the official unofficial campaign dog

By Tony Lee Dec 7, 2016
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​Bernard C. Coleman III

​Few of us enjoy wrestling with the dynamics of office politics. But what if politics is the purpose of the office? 

Bernard C. Coleman III understands that world well. Starting in April 2015, Coleman served as chief diversity and human resources officer at the Hillary for America Campaign Committee (HFA), the organization based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that managed Clinton's run for the White House. In that job, he and his team were tasked with a wide range of traditional and emerging HR duties for what he describes as a billion-dollar, nationwide enterprise. 

While his team of four was responsible for more than 800 staff at headquarters, they also managed all HR issues for each state Democratic party, which meant having to comply with federal, state and local labor laws from coast to coast for almost 4,200 staffers. It was an all-encompassing, seven-day-a-week job that reached its end sooner than Coleman and his colleagues anticipated. 

After investing so much of his life over the past 20 months in this job, Coleman agreed to share the following insights and lessons learned that he hopes will benefit other HR professionals, including those who would never dream of stepping foot in a political campaign office.

 

How was your team structured, and how were responsibilities allocated? 

My entire team comprised four people at the peak of the campaign, and I wore two hats: diversity and HR. Two of my staff—the payroll and benefits director and an HR associate—worked strictly on HR issues, and another staffer served as diversity manager. In addition, the Democratic National Committee, where I'd worked previously as HR director for five years, served like a subsidiary to us. Many of the DNC staff also were housed in Brooklyn, and we would handle onboarding and employee relations for them in our office, including day-to-day HR issues. In turn, the DNC would handle all administrative aspects, including benefits enrollment and payroll.

 

While the campaign ultimately wasn't successful, what aspects of your team's efforts succeeded beyond your expectations? 

Campaigns, much like private industry, often operate under tight budgetary constraints and are tasked with doing more with less, so maximizing efficiencies is critical. I think we succeeded there by constantly refining processes to cut down on errors, which prevented us from losing valuable staff hours and reducing productivity. For instance, our HR team was one-third smaller than the preceding Obama for America campaign efforts of 2008 and 2012. Yet, we were able to operate efficiently and support a larger campaign staff by strategically thinking through each process and leveraging our resources on a frequent basis. We would determine what was working well and not so well, and what needed to be jettisoned. By thinking 10 steps ahead, we really could work smarter, not harder, under strict deadlines with limited resources.  

 

Were you able to leverage technology to help with those efforts? 

Definitely. An important element of our campaign was to maximize our ingenuity and conserve resources by using the best ideas and cutting-edge technology to deliver world-class results. After all, millions of donors contributed to our campaign, and we had to make sure we all worked to do more with less. 

One of the best technology decisions was to leverage a low-cost HR platform [Zenefits] to effectively onboard staff and save valuable team hours in the process. The technology provided a single portal that integrated with our various insurance carriers, payroll and 401(k) providers and also reduced the paper-laden processes often synonymous with HR onboarding. We also were able to eliminate clerical errors and provide offer letters digitally, which improved onboarding and was extremely helpful during open enrollment.    

Of course, new technologies aren't without their pain points and limited capabilities. So it was imperative before we chose this vendor that we vetted them by performing a pressure test to confirm that they could actually do all that they purported to do, based on our specific requirements.  

 

What other challenges was HR tasked to solve that perhaps you didn't expect going in? 

I've met other HR professionals who handled the dynamics of a corporate acquisition, but I didn't think those skills would be needed in this job. However, we went through a similar process at the conclusion of the Democratic presidential primaries. After Secretary Clinton secured the Democratic nomination, it was important to ensure that many of the principles that [candidate] Sen. Bernie Sanders promoted during the primary were included in the Hillary for America policy positions, so that we were unified heading into the general election. In addition, our campaign worked to bring along as many Sanders supporters as possible while simultaneously absorbing former Sanders campaign staff onto the Clinton team. In those efforts, we sought economies of scale that could materially improve the campaign apparatus, much like that of a company following a merger or acquisition. 

To be sure, M&A can be a difficult and delicate endeavor in any industry. There are many challenges, such as the unification of a common purpose and the elimination of duplicative roles, which can lead to job loss, morale issues and the need for a salient communication strategy. Our campaign was no different, so we worked closely with the Sanders team to ensure that his ideas were incorporated into the Democratic platform, and we absorbed many of his former staff and worked to make sure his supporters came along with us in the process despite the bruising primary. 

 

After a corporate merger or acquisition, ensuring both tight security and effective employee communication can be a challenge. How did your team handle that issue? 

We quickly found that there needed to be an effort to balance transparency versus leaks. At times, we heard employees say they felt we needed to offer better communication about big-picture initiatives, strategy and decisions. However, with greater transparency comes the risk for increased leaks. Obviously, campaigns must be very strategic in sharing information so as not to give the opponent an advantage by revealing a vital element or tactic. But balancing the need for openness and confidentiality can be a tenuous situation for any organization. Too much transparency can inadvertently give an opponent or competitor an edge, while excessive secrecy can impact morale and be a demotivating factor for staff while eroding trust.  

Our goal was to manage expectations with staff and leadership to provide as much information as possible so that everyone felt included and invested and had a greater perspective as to why certain strategic decisions are being made. I think we accomplished that. 

Of course, computer security and hacking were a major factor during the campaign. Thankfully, we were never compromised, as our IT staff was vigilant and frequently reminded us to make our passwords more complex. They also ensured that two-factor authentication was in place and that we knew when to flag anything that seemed fishy.  

The IT staff also would walk around the office, and, if they saw a laptop unlocked, they would make the offending staffer pay the price through practical jokes. They would send out silly e-mails to all staff in the name of the offending staffer saying something like "drinks on me tonight" or "free pizza by my desk." It was a strong reminder through friendly "shaming" to make sure that all staff followed the outlined security guidelines, and no one wanted to be the next casualty.

 

While focusing on the big picture is a key to success, so is effectively handling the daily duties of HR. What lessons did you learn there? 

Meeting management was a big one. Meetings are an important function of any organization to advance a company's objectives. Ideally, each meeting should have a purpose with clear deliverables determined by the end, and those invited to attend should be germane to fulfilling the meeting's objectives. On the campaign, we worked at an incredibly fast pace and we'd have multiple meetings scheduled to deal with the most pressing issues of the day. 

At times, the lightning speed at which we moved didn't allow for proper meeting planning, and an unfortunate byproduct would be people being inadvertently left out. As a result, decisions could be made without the input of a team member whose program or department was often a contributor to the stated outcome. The unintended consequence was that staff may not know what the left or right hand was doing, or decisions were made without getting input from those who had key information or insight to add to the dialogue.  

An important lesson learned is that we needed to make sure every meeting followed the five W's: who should be there, what is the point of the meeting, when can everyone meet, where should the meeting be held, and why is this meeting and the outcome important to our organization? If these elements are satisfied, you'll have more-effective and -impactful meetings.

 

Were there any hot new HR practices that you tried? If so, what were the results? 

Yes, there were quite a few. The campaign was a virtual learning lab in which we got to test out HR best practices. Of course, some things stuck while other things stunk. But we had a lot of fun in the process as our staff grew rapidly and we adjusted to the changing culture. 

After the campaign launched, our staff numbers ballooned and what started as a small, tight-knit group seemed to change overnight. We didn't want to lose the family feeling, so we decided to roll out a buddy program designed to enable new hires to acclimate more smoothly into HQ. For many of our staff, moving to New York and working in a campaign environment was a bit overwhelming, and the buddies helped alleviate some of the stress associated with a new job.  Through the program, new hires were matched with an existing campaign staff member, and folks were encouraged to meet informally, especially during the first few weeks on the campaign. 

The buddy program ended up being a staff favorite and was an overwhelming success. We periodically polled staff who participated to gauge how they felt about the program and to solicit feedback on how we could improve it. Overall, people loved it and said it made a big difference in feeling welcomed and valued. 

The program I'm most proud of was our Stronger Together conversations, which came about as a result of the violence we saw during the summer of 2016. As the list of tragedies continued to grow, we wanted our staff to feel supported and bring their full selves to work. We also knew that if we couldn't have tough conversations internally, it would be difficult to prescribe solutions and talk externally to the many Americans who also were saddened, outraged and confused by the violence. From that we tackled many tough national topics ranging from racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, and we grew stronger together as a result.  

I received a lot of feedback about the impact of the Stronger Together conversations, and resoundingly our staff said that they felt more connected and supported by the campaign and that they intended to help create similar programs wherever their careers took them.

 

Did your team take other steps to minimize employee stress? 

The campaign was a pressure cooker as new issues emerged daily, but there were a lot of amazingly fun moments as well. For instance, since many staffers spent more time in the office than at home, they'd bring their dogs to work. Technically, we didn't allow dogs in the office, but that didn't stop (wo)man's best friend from becoming campaign companions. There were Shih Tzus, Yorkies, teacup varieties and bulldogs. And then there was Winnie, a Pomeranian and Schipperke mix. 

winnie.jpg
Winnie was the official unofficial campaign dog. She might be the calmest, best mannered, most cuddly dog I've ever encountered. Staff would scoop her up and cradle her like a baby, and having her around was like onsite dog therapy. She had a cathartic impact on staff, especially at high-stress moments, which was pretty much every day. Frankly, the overall adorableness was a welcomed presence. 

I'd encourage HR to embrace a culture that allows a dog-friendly environment. The only downside was the occasional puppy vomit or rare puppy poop accidents, but those were infrequent.

 

How did you keep your HR team motivated through the ups and downs of the campaign? 

We had our share of fun. For instance, our new-hire orientations, which were held every Monday from the campaign's formal launch on April 11, 2015, through early October 2016, allowed us to meet every new hire who set foot in our Brooklyn headquarters. It permitted the HR team to be the first faces seen by new campaign staffers from across the country who were excited and committed to working for Secretary Clinton.  

During each orientation, we worked to make sure staff were informed, prepared and acclimated to be as successful as they could possibly be. Our mantra was to take care of our staff so that they were free to be great. 

Of course, being an HR practitioner could feel like an under-appreciated, behind-the-scenes function at times. But as the campaign began to wind down, the HR team received many positive affirmations and wonderfully heartfelt notes from outgoing staff about how well taken care of they felt and what a positive experience they had with HR. Their words reaffirmed our belief that our work matters, and, as HR professionals, we have a material impact on every employee.

Bernard C. Coleman III served as the first chief diversity and human resources officer in U.S. history for any presidential campaign. Prior to joining HFA, Coleman held senior-level HR roles at the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He also spent three years working in advocacy and member relations at the Society for Human Resource Management, where he focused on policies and initiatives before federal and state lawmakers on workplace legislative issues. He lives in the D.C. metro area with his wife and two daughters.

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