K Street's talent scout

The next time a lobbying firm snags a coveted hire, the missing link might be Chris Jones, the managing partner of CapitolWorks. Operating behind the scenes, headhunters like Jones help K Street firms identify and reel in talent from the administration, Capitol Hill and the private sector. 

Jones said firms often need a third party to make the opening pitch to a recruit — especially when the target is someone who works for a competitor.

“I think one of the reasons that clients come to us is that they need a neutral party to find people at other lobbying firms. They don’t feel comfortable picking up the phone, calling a colleague and saying, ‘Do you want to come work for me?’ Because then if it doesn’t work, or if the colleague doesn’t get selected, then it sours the relationship,” said Jones, who does not publicize his client list.

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The recruitment process at Capitol Works starts by learning what a firm’s needs are. Jones then offers advice based on the political landscape and the reality check of what he calls “beer budget, champagne tastes.” 

Once a search is ordered, Jones begins to scour databases, résumés and other resources for candidates. Looking at people who already have jobs is a must, Jones said, because “often, the best candidates are not looking.” 

When he receives résumés, Jones looks for experience and “a knowledge of what makes things tick” in the Capitol or in a statehouse. Face-to-face, recruits need to display a “natural sense of talking and interpersonal communication.” Strong relationships in Washington are a must, and policy expertise is a strong selling point.

“I know lots of lobbyists who don’t have the relationships, but can talk about [their issue] until the cows come home. So ... if they have the relationships and the policy knowledge and they present well, that’s like a triple threat,” Jones said.

Asked to name the ideal lobbyist, Jones chose Linda Daschle, the president of LHD & Associates, for her “professionalism and character.” 

She “just was smart about her issues,” Jones said of Daschle, who is married to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Forecasting the future is also a big part of Jones’s job. A lobbyist who is a catch in one Congress can be a dud in another due to an election or turns in the legislative agenda. In order to serve his clients well, Jones has to anticipate which way the political winds will blow. 

“What happens in the Senate and, to a certain extent, the House” in the fall election will affect what advice he gives clients in 2013, Jones said.

Though many of the most successful lobbyists “have the ability to work with both Democrats and Republicans and check their views at the door,” party affiliation still matters.

“If you tie yourself to a party too much, it’s like a stock. Is your stock rising right now? Is it falling now? If your stock is high, do you want to continue to ride out your time in government? Do you want to basically jump and have a lifestyle change?”

Jones, who also heads another junior to mid-level political staffing firm called PoliTemps, had his first brush with politics helping his father run for judge in Texas. After serving four years in the military and graduating from Texas Tech University in 1991, he eventually went to work on Capitol Hill for then-Majority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.).

In 1994, Jones returned to Texas to work for the reelection campaign of then-Gov. Ann Richards (D).

“It was taking a step back in terms of the fast track of my career, but also moving to a place that was closer to my heart and to a candidate that means a lot to me,” Jones said about his time on the campaign. 

When Richards was defeated by future President George W. Bush, Jones was left “out of a job.” He looked “into the abyss” and came up with PoliTemps, “a legislative, government and political staffing service.”

Jones enjoyed giving “people an opportunity to find a way to stay in Washington and be successful.” After founding the firm in 1996, he began receiving requests to fill senior-level positions — directors of communications, for instance — which prompted the creation of CapitolWorks in 2006.

Jones still works for both firms today.

Ryan Polich, the principal at CapitolWorks, said Jones is unique in the headhunting game because of his “genuine interest” in the business he recruits for. He’s been successful, Polich said, because he “has a foot in every door and a hand in every cookie jar.”

“He really gets the city and really gets the people who are in and around public affairs,” Polich said. “He’s also truly interested in how this works. He’s very passionate about politics and how people live and work their way around the city.”

Jones says he takes pride in every connection and hire he has made. Those first applicants with PoliTemps are today’s movers-and-shakers of Washington, he said.

“My philosophy has been, we’re not going to be able to help everyone. There’s going to be some people in here that have their sights set on a certain type of job, are not cut out for this type of job or just get a job the very next week,” Jones said.

“But I think you want to give everyone a sense of dignity and respect and professionalism when they’re interviewing ... That’s the least we can do.”