K Street Insiders: Thoughts on joining the private sector

After years of canceling dinner plans, obsessively checking my BlackBerry, running out of the Longworth House Office Building on Sept. 11, surviving anthrax scares and explaining why, yes, American Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico did have a vote in the most contested Democratic presidential primary of my lifetime, you could say I was ready for a change of pace: the private sector.

As with any change, there is good and bad, but I’m happy to report that the transition from politics has been fairly smooth. The work in the private sector is challenging and surprisingly fast-paced.

There are some noticeable differences — like fewer incoming and a lot more outgoing calls. People swear less and conference-call more. You can accept and offer free lunch. (If there isn’t the equivalent of the “Freshman 15” entering the private sector, there should be.) Mom no longer calls to say, “Honey, do you know your salary is on the Internet?” You may be convinced your BlackBerry is broken when not a single work e-mail arrives on a Saturday. And Twittering is really no longer dangerous because, frankly, no one cares.

In many ways, life is very similar. There are still deadlines, your bosses (now known as clients) expect results, and you need to stay on top of the news and issues to be successful. You still work alongside smart, talented people.

I had been at Hill & Knowlton only a handful of days when we celebrated Frank Mankiewicz’s 85th birthday. Frank was press secretary to former Sen. Robert Kennedy, managed George McGovern’s presidential campaign, ran National Public Radio and has been at Hill & Knowlton for the past several decades. When I was asked to write about my transition from political life to the private sector, I thought, “Who better to offer insight than a man who accomplished so much in both?”

I was struck by the simplicity of his advice. He said no matter where you are, politics or business, the keys to success are to a) tell the truth, b) be nice and c) be helpful. He added, “The most important thing you have is your reputation and your friends.” I’ve certainly found Frank’s advice to be as true in the private sector as it is in public life.

In this economy, the job hunt can be more difficult than ever. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

Look before you leap. I thought about leaving politics many times, but I just wasn’t ready. The private sector will always be here, so make sure it’s the right time for you. Sure, the lure of more money may be appealing (especially to you staff assistants out there), but money won’t matter if you feel out of the loop and unhappy where you’ve landed. And it’s important to remember that the more experience you have, the more marketable you’ll be.

Do your homework. Talk to as many people as possible. Find out what they like and don’t like about their jobs. The more you know before making the jump, the likelier you’ll have found the job that’s right for you.

Translate your skills. For me, joining a well-regarded public relations firm like Hill & Knowlton made sense. Communications skills transfer well to the private sector, but with other jobs it may be less obvious. Spend time thinking about how your current skills translate to the job you want — and take on new responsibilities to help you get there.

Network, network, network. It doesn’t matter how many résumés you send, it’s just not how most people get in the door. Just like with politics, connections matter.

Help others now and down the road. This is where Frank’s advice to be helpful and nice is particularly valuable. I consider this networking. Find time to take that informational interview or give advice to that friend of a friend who’s looking to break into politics. You may help them today, but they just might help you tomorrow. There’s reason for the old adage, Your intern today, your boss tomorrow.

And once you make the switch, stay involved and develop your own voice. You might not be living it day to day, but there are other ways to stay involved and make a difference.

For many of us, speaking for our boss is second nature. But no matter how many speeches or op-eds we write for others, it can feel foreign to write about ourselves. I’ve certainly found this true. Frank Mankiewicz became part of history when he delivered the tragic news that our country lost another Kennedy to an assassin’s bullet. He was first known through his connections to others but he quickly developed his own voice, running for Congress and creating National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” And after decades in the business, and well into his 80s, Frank still comes to work every day, speaking his own voice and clearly enjoying every minute of it. I hope we’re all so lucky.

Paxton is a vice president at Hill & Knowlton, a leading international communications firm with 74 offices worldwide, including Washington. She has more than a decade of communications experience on political campaigns, Capitol Hill and in the national media, including work for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), the Kerry presidential campaign and CNN. She can be reached at stacie.paxton@hillandknowlton.com.