The art of ‘the ask’ — be ‘kind and courteous’

K Street is all about politics, ideas, intangibles. It’s about manufacturing opinions and laws, not widgets. It’s selling wind (or getting subsidies for it). But for every bill sponsored, for every law signed, every project wish granted and every invitation accepted, there first has to be a request.

Even the most powerful in Washington can be humbled by “the ask.” From the lowliest page to the coveted scheduler, a congressman, a lobbyist or White House staffer, getting to “yes” is an art unto itself. My day job is to run a business organization focused on capital formation and sound economic policy, but like so many heads of other business groups, trade associations, lobby shops and think tanks, I spend the majority of my time focused on the ask in one capacity or another. And, I ask myself, who am I to ask others?

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A short time ago, one Washington journalist told me that I had a very unique and persuasive approach when I invited him to my organization’s longstanding Economic Policy Evening. He encouraged me to write this piece. I suppose over three decades I’ve been told “no” enough times to learn the best ways to navigate a path to “yes,” so here are a few universal lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Be kind, courteous, and conscientious. U.S. political history is overflowing with examples of powerful people who have learned that it’s easier to attract more flies with honey than browbeating. Lyndon Johnson’s biographer describes him sucking up to Sam Rayburn and Russell Long to build his power. Former Secretary of State James Baker earned the nickname “the Velvet Hammer.” Years ago, I witnessed a certain Ways and Means chairman who presided over his committee with an imperial flair in his hideaway begging a freshman member for his vote. More recently, The Washington Post described the transformation of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as becoming “more valet than hit man.”

The old golden rule applies whether you are making the ask from a senior member of Congress or the gatekeeper simply referred to as “the Queen”: It is vital to treat others as you’d want to be treated. It will open doors just about everywhere.

Be relentless but not offensive. Filling a dinner event every month with the right number and proper balance of Democratic and Republican members, senior business community representatives and reputable D.C. journalists is no easy task. You cannot give up at the first roadblock and cannot count on “We’ll get back to you.” The right combination of persistence and persuasion is a fine line. While some have mastered the ask through the brute force of a big Wall Street law firm litigator, odds are over time they will end up out of power, out of ideas and, most importantly, out of friends.

Be realistic. Pick your battles wisely. Anyone can make an ask about something important to them, but if they are not attuned to the political environment and sensitivities of the recipient, they’ll burn bridges and never be afforded an ask again.

Do your homework. Washington is full of important people who get invited to “important” events. Before asking, you must get to know as much as you can about the recipient before getting them to understand how important your ask is. Take the time to know and understand them. Find common ground. Compliment them on something unrelated that they have done. The more homework you do, the more likely it is that your ask will be considered and the more likely your recipient will feel honored that you are asking them.

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Consider accommodation. For years, the ACCF Economic Policy Evenings have been reserved for VIP members of Congress, the media and the business community. Recently, one member asked if he could bring his spouse. Without hesitating, I told him yes, realizing that spouses rarely get to enjoy a night out. Think a lot about how your request fits in with your target’s busy workday.

Be ethical. Never put someone in an awkward situation. The little “yes” you may get isn’t worth the hit to your reputation.

Take advantage of every opportunity. No one is alone on the C&O canal. Just ask the powerful Senate committee chairman before whom I had testified on multiple occasions over the last 30 years. I encountered him jogging alone on a popular D.C. trail and politely introduced myself and before long found common ground with him in our mutual passion for running. Moments before I did a TV show, I ran into a well-known commentator in the green room whom I had tried unsuccessfully for months to reach. After a brief reintroduction and short pitch, I made the connection I had sought for so long. With hectic schedules, spammed e-mail inboxes and overflowing voice mail, keep your eyes open and your ask ready. You never know whom you’ll run into on the street, on the coffee shop or along the jogging trail.

Be reputable and there for the long run. You may only work on an issue or for a given firm for a short period of time, but people can remember your name forever. Before the election, we were able to secure one highly esteemed economist from the current Obama administration as a speaker because my group has been around so long he read our material when he was a Ph.D. student. That’s staying power, and it will benefit you greatly.

Most importantly, make the ask! It’s shocking how many people on K Street forget or avoid the real reason they’re there. Lobbyists, when they get that rare and valued opportunity, may never make a request. Or they talk about issues, mutual friends and hobbies but never make a specific ask. Maybe it’s because they are afraid of “no,” or maybe they dislike the discomfort. Either way, it’s actually worse for everyone: It’s a waste of everyone’s time, and nothing gets accomplished for your cause.

Whether it’s marriage, your job, money — you have to ask for what you want. More importantly, when you believe in the cause you represent, you owe it to that person or that issue to make your case aggressively and then make the ask.

Maybe some 20 years ago, I subconsciously wanted The Wall Street Journal to call me “Mr. Capital Gains” for all the time and effort I spent to cut that darn tax. They did. So, using all the suggestions I’ve included, here’s my request: Go out and politely but confidently make your ask. That, and please keep capital gains tax rates low to grow the economy.

Mark Bloomfield is president and CEO of the American Council for Capital Formation (www.accf.org), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to public policies supportive of saving and investment to
 promote long-term economic growth, job creation and competitiveness. Bloomfield also runs a blog, www.MrCapitalGains.com.