'We know who the good people are'

Nels Olson is gatekeeper to the good life in D.C.

Impress him with your policy expertise, lawmakers and administration officials, and you may soon earn a fatter paycheck. Convince him of your management skills and you could be spending your weekends relaxing in your McLean, Va., home instead of giving a speech at a local Kiwanis club 2,000 miles away.

As the managing director at Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive search firm, Olson, 38, helps lobbying firms and trade associations measure the talent exiting the government’s revolving door.

Patrick G. Ryan
Nels Olson joined Korn/Ferry after working in personnel for President George H.W. Bush.

To be sure, earning a six-figure salary, having a driver who ferries you around from place to place and being the star at cocktail parties isn’t such a bad life. But for many of the D.C. public-sector elite, there is more money to be had on K Street, for less hassle.

“Often these people have given their blood, sweat and tears to public service and haven’t been able to build their bank account,” said Olson, who has worked at Korn/Ferry for 12 years.

Returning to faraway home districts twice a month is also a strain, Olson said. “It can tear at families.”

This period, after a presidential campaign, is prime headhunting season in D.C. Though some of them might wish it weren’t so, there are a number of ex-lawmakers, staffers, party and campaign leaders, secretaries and undersecretaries, and White House staff looking for work.
Olson and colleague Lorraine Lavet have placed some of the biggest names in town in recent years. Other search firms include Spencer Stuart & Associates and Russell Reynolds Associates.

Olson helped link one of the hottest legislative talents, ex-House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), with Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and helped get Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) former chief of staff, Mitch Bainwol, to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Most recently, Korn/Ferry did the search for the National Cable and Television Association, which last week announced it wanted Energy Deputy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow to run its organization.

Freddie Mac tapped Korn/Ferry to help find a new head of its government-relations shop. The mortgage giant chose Timothy McBride, who had lobbied for Daimler-Chrysler.

“One of the reasons we are retained is because we can get to these people, we know who the good people are,” Olson said.

It’s been a long time since the notion of citizen-lawmakers who served a few years only to return to their plows accurately reflected how politics works. Most stay behind to reap the rewards of the often-demanding public-sector work. According to a study by PoliticalMoneyLine, 272 former members were registered as lobbyists between 1995 and 2004.

The rewards are bigger than they’ve ever been. Tauzin, whose slick Southern charm was also sought by the Motion Picture Association of America, reportedly will earn $2 million a year in salary and benefits. Search firms such as Korn/Ferry usually get one-third of the first-year cash salary. 

“When I first got into this, the National Journal survey [of association salaries] had only a couple of folks making over 1 million bucks. Now there are more than 20.”

Not everyone is happy with the change. Danielle Bryan, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which last year released a critical report on Washington’s revolving door, said “cashing in” on public service is now an “epidemic.”

“There was a time when that was considered sort of seedy,” Bryan said. POGO’s report said the revolving door can undermine the public’s faith in government.

But defenders, such as Olson, counter that the promise of higher financial rewards in the private sector ensures that top-tier talent serves in government.

Olson, who still has a bit of a fresh-faced collegiate look, though it’s accompanied by silver cufflinks, came to Washington after graduating from Syracuse to work in the personnel office for President George H.W. Bush. After Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992, Olson, who had earned a master’s degree in business administration by attending George Washington University at night, himself needed a job. He worked in public relations before joining Korn/Ferry.

In an office adorned with family photos, one or two political mementos and pictures of a 30-foot sailing boat he owned with three friends, Olson explained the keys to his job.

A healthy Rolodex is important because whom you know counts in this town. Headhunters have to be strategic thinkers to help define an association’s or a company’s legislative goals. And you need to be discreet. “For various reasons, politically it may not be appropriate for [an association or a corporation] to approach folks,” Olson said.

Tauzin gave up his chairmanship after being criticized for considering the position at PhRMA while in office. He was also fighting cancer at the time.

Olson said he and his staff are constantly keeping tabs on people who would be good prospective hires.

“This is a town of reputations,” he said.
When it comes time to do a job search, Olson and his team interview prospective candidates for executive search committees, which make the final decision. Candidates are measured in gray-covered, bound packets that Olson and his staff develop. The packets consist of the candidate’s r