Every four years, Washington experiences an existential crisis of sorts. Trade associations and Washington offices wonder whether they are well positioned for the changing of the guard.  And employees wonder whether the Transition presents a threat or an opportunity to their career advancement. 

And while there are elements of this process that follow a fairly predictable pattern, this political season is anything but predictable and that has implications for K Street. 


Despite the turmoil in the presidential race, there are signs that more incremental changes are already taking place in the way Washington defines executive talent.  Today’s most successful organizations and individuals have two important qualities that were not relevant a decade ago. 

First and perhaps foremost, today’s senior trade association and government affairs executives are increasingly called on to be more than just the “Advocate in Chief.”  The old model of lobbying, based on rolodexes and relationships, while still important, is no longer sufficient.  Instead, the ability to shape legislation and regulation is increasingly dependent upon building broad grassroots and stakeholder support.  Companies and organizations need leaders that have demonstrated success managing integrated advocacy campaigns.

At the risk of stating the obvious, technology has also changed how business gets done in Washington.  Online petitions seemingly take off overnight, powerful communities of otherwise unaffiliated individuals come together on Facebook and Twitter, and traditional definitions of authority and credibility are, at times, thrown out the window as debates morph before our eyes. 

Successful leaders in Washington no longer dismiss “the Twitter.”  Instead, they embrace the power of the social network as an essential tool in their growing and diverse toolbox, especially when it comes to reputation management and stakeholder mobilization.  The most effective leaders in Washington may not know the difference between Snapchat and Instagram (hint: the photos disappear in one but not the other) but they most definitely know that no winning advocacy program is complete without a robust digital presence. 

These two traits – the ability to lead a multifaceted advocacy effort and the willingness to embrace technology – are instigating a generational shift in leadership as we speak.  Candidates that were considered mid-career (i.e. their 40s) are increasingly being selected for positions of more seniority once reserved for the “elder statesman.” 

While those two trends seem fairly established and unlikely to change, that is not to suggest the coming Transition and the ripple effects on K Street will be predictable. 

We are regularly asked by our clients and our friends: what steps should we take now to prepare for the next administration and a changing political climate. That is the tough one. 

Traditionally, the Washington ecosystem has adapted to party turnover without significant disruptions, enabling a rather fluid transfer of talent – in and out of the White House and federal agencies as well as on and off the Hill.  But can we expect that to happen this time?

If Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle MORE wins the White House and Democrats take back the Senate, we would expect to see an uptick in the demand for well-placed Democrats to lead Washington offices.  But Republicans need not despair.  The importance of operating across the aisle remains strong in Washington offices, if not in Congress itself, and savvy Republicans will continue be in demand. 

But what happens if Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE wins, how will that affect K Street?  Our prediction is that a Trump administration would most likely disrupt elements of the Washington ecosystem that have endured countless Presidential Transitions.  The top talent may choose to sit out a Trump administration – or may not be wanted at all.  Rather than drawing from a pool of seasoned Republicans (or Democrats), there may be a demand for a new breed of trade association executive and government affairs professional, those whose value derives from their experience beyond Washington and the traditional definitions.  Perhaps tough negotiation skills will be in demand? Or maybe seasoned operational leaders will be highly sought.   

The bottom line is that regardless of who wins the White House, change creates the opportunity for reflection and recalibration.  Today, organizations should be asking:  Are we staffed for the new political reality?  Are we building a robust and responsive stakeholder network?  Are we equipped to truly engage in a digital world?  Individuals should be asking:  Am I equipped to contribute to this changing world?  The year ahead promises to be a bit more disruptive than Transitions of the past.  So if adjustments are in order, there is no better time than the present make a plan, assess the market and prepare for change.     

Bill O’Leary, Practice Leader – Government Affairs, and Stephanie Tomasso, Practice Leader – Trade & Professional Associations, are based in the Washington, DC office of Russell Reynolds Associates, a leading executive search and assessment firm.