CAN YOUR FIRM RUN SMARTER? THERE’S A CONSULTANT FOR THAT
by Sean J. Miller, Campaigns & Elections
A bevy of campaign and consulting firm gigs gave Michelle Coyle a key insight into the industry: business skills are not ubiquitous among political professionals. In fact, she saw such a lack of effective personnel and financial management during her career that she launched her own firm offering advice on exactly that.
BGSD Strategies, a business-to-business consulting shop for campaign firms and advocacy organizations, is now entering it’s second year, and Coyle says business has continued to grow.
Now, that growth may stem from how rare her offerings are in the campaign industry. While practitioners routinely to talk about professionalizing management practices, in reality, the industry continues to lag the corporate world in this respect.
“I see a lot of people taking a lot of shortcuts in the business management,” Coyle told C&E, “because they’re so focused on winning campaigns.
Moreover, she said, “they find that to be tedious and not why they got into the business.”
Coyle herself didn’t get into the business to do financial planning and personal management. She worked campaigns and was a senior member of several firms. After she left the Democratic digital Rising Tide Interactive in 2015, she found herself at a crossroads. She wanted to launch her own firm—she’d gotten her MBA—but faced a challenge scaling up.
“I didn’t have anyone I could hire to help me. I was so unique, I didn’t know any other political MBAs to scale my business,” she said. “It’s hard to find people who are crazy enough and obsessed enough with politics that they want to do this.”
Today, her firm helps counsel other consultants looking to launch their own businesses. That includes anything from basic financial forecasting to sounding out a potential idea. “Sometimes people pay me tell them it’s a bad idea and not to do it,” she said.
She’s also trying to crack a problem that has long bedeviled the industry: cyclical hiring. Firms frequently find themselves scaling up during crunch time and then find themselves with too many staff and not enough business to sustain payroll after Election Day. It’s a particular problem now because firms are getting an influx of business so early in a cycle.
“The cyclical revenue cycle is difficult to manage,” she said. “There’s been a lot of consultants getting stuck with more people than they expected. They never really are putting systems into place because they’re reliant on this cycle.”
Part of Coyle’s mission also includes augmenting her side of the industry’s professional development, which has long been an area of neglect. But Coyle isn’t the only one concerned about human capital management among consultants.
To wit, some high-profile practitioners have started calling attention to the issue, noting that the campaign industry is now competing with Silicon Valley and major corporations when it comes to recruiting for digital.
“We are terrible managers,” Coyle said. “It’s seen as some kind of impressive thing if you can yell and scare your staff. We burn people out.”
Part of improving HR in the industry is expanding opportunities for diverse candidates, she added.
“We’ve got a lot of old white guys in a room,” Coyle said, arguing that needs to change.
“The way that we do that is we set up more systems that allow more people to come into the industry,” Coyle said. “A large part of it is good management of people and good stewardship of your money.”
Good financial stewardship can lead to been personnel management, she noted. For instance, some consultants face the prospect of giving themselves raises or providing good benefits for their staff.
“You see those firms where people stick for four or five, or eight or nine years. It’s because they are good managers and they are putting time into developing their people.”
This article originally appeared in Campaigns & Elections on July 18th, 2017.