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EPISODE 0062

Calm in the Political Storm

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Workplace cultures in politics and tech share many similarities: Overwork is glorified; long hours are the norm; employees are expected to respond to communication instantly, no matter the day or time; and those that opt out are seen as lacking hustle or ceding ground to competitors. Marty Santalucia, a political consultant in Pennsylvania, wanted to do things differently. In this episode, he talks about applying calm work principles to an industry that’s known for the opposite dynamic.


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clipart plays.

Wailin: [00:00:02] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Basecamp is unique among project management tools. It’s built to show trust between all participants. It’s more about working together instead of one person at the top shooting off to-dos Learn more and sign up at basecamp.com.

Marty: [00:00:19] I had worked for years in professional environments which glorified these 12-hour-plus work days. So it was scary for me to say, okay, well I’m going to stop working at a certain period in the day.

[00:00:35] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

Shaun: [00:00:36] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.

Wailin: [00:00:42] And I’m Wailin Wong. So have you been watching the impeachment hearings?

Shaun: [00:00:44] I absolutely have not. I’ve been getting like the daily updates, the recaps.

Wailin: [00:00:48] Oh, where do you get your recaps?

Shaun: [00:00:49] NPR’s Up First.

Wailin: [00:00:51] Oh, very nice. I have—

Shaun: [00:00:54] And also 538’s brilliant podcast.

Wailin: [00:00:56] Got it. I have another recommendation to throw on the pile because it feels like, especially if you’re a news junkie like I am, it’s just too overwhelming and too anxiety inducing to be looking at the news all day and trying to make sense of it. There is a guy in Chicago who’s pretty well known in both tech and journalism and civic circles named Dan Sinker. He has his hands in all kinds of projects and he has this very elegant service. It’s at impeachment.fyi. You can put in your email address and it’ll send you a daily round up of the impeachment news.

[00:01:29] He writes it in kind of like a voicey fun way. And that way you can just stay off the news for the whole day if you want to, and you just get the bare essentials.

Shaun: [00:01:40] That seems so helpful and healthy.

Wailin: [00:01:41] I mean, I can’t say it’s healthy for Dan, necessarily, because he—

Shaun: [00:01:44] Well, sure, because he has to go through the news.

Wailin: [00:01:45] He has to write, and if you look on his Twitter, he’ll be like okay, I’m going to start writing now. Look for your impeachment.fyi update in your inbox in an hour or something. In some of these he’s Oh, I’m still writing it. But he is really doing the Lord’s work. and I recommend it. There’s also like a Patreon thing, I think, so you can tip him if you appreciate the work he does. And he only updates on the weekdays and then maybe on the weekends if there’s a lot of news, which, unfortunately lately there has been.

Shaun: [00:02:14] Yeah, I think for a lot of us, the intensity and stress of the political news cycle both in the US and abroad has really amped up since 2016. But the reality is that for people who’ve made politics their career, it’s always kind of been a pressure cooker.

[00:02:28] They’re working long hours, they’re glued to some kind of screen all day and there’s always fires to put out.

Wailin: [00:02:32] We got an email from a political consultant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who said he runs his business on the same principles of calm work and setting boundaries that we use at Basecamp. And I was very intrigued by this, so I decided to call him up and have a conversation about it.

[00:02:48] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

Marty: [00:02:55] My name is Marty Santalucia. I am the founder and principal of MFStrategies, which is a political consulting firm based in Pennsylvania. We connect candidates with small dollar donors and then we also help them connect with more institutional donors and organizations who are interested in working with candidates on particular issues.

Wailin: [00:03:14] How did you get into politics?

Marty: [00:03:15] Politics was always kind of a part of growing up. Did my first volunteer shift in 2004 for the John Kerry campaign. Convinced a couple of my friends to come down to the John Kerry office after school, the first day of 10th grade and made our first volunteer phone calls there to voters about the presidential election.

Wailin: [00:03:39] And obviously Kerry did not become president. How did you deal with that disappointment, especially your first time volunteering with a campaign, something you really believe in and your candidate doesn’t win? How do you remember kind of bearing the kind of emotional weight of that experience?

Marty: [00:03:58] About as well as you could expect probably a 15 or 16-year-old to deal with it. I kept the Kerry, John Kerry for president pins on my backpack until the end of the year. That was about how well I dealt with it. It was an important lesson to learn early on that things don’t go your way all the time. It was motivation to get back out there two years later and in turn, and volunteer for another campaign right away. When I was in college was the 2008 campaign and that was my first sort of professional paid gig. I was a field organizer for the Obama campaign, so I ended up taking a semester off from school actually, to work on that race and get more involved than I ever had been previously.

Wailin: [00:04:39] And what is the life of a field organizer like for a presidential campaign?

Marty: [00:04:44] Oh, it’s rough. It’s long hours, tedious, arduous work. Especially the Obama campaign was really heavily on field and it’s not something you can really brace for. Going into it today as an older person who knows what I would be getting into, I don’t think I would survive being a field organizer again because I would know how much work would be involved in that. It’s definitely something to get out of your system when you’re younger and get that experience under your belt early.

Wailin: [00:05:15] So you’re waking up early and you are just given a map or you have a list of addresses or a geographical area to cover and you’re just knocking on doors all day?

Marty: [00:05:25] Pretty much. So at least part of the day. So your sort of day in the life is you start in the morning, you get into the office 8:30, 9:00. Your first group of volunteers come in and typically they’re making phone calls and you are supplying them with materials throughout the day, making sure that as they’re making calls that data is getting appropriately recorded. And then you are also prepping for going out and knocking doors in the afternoon.

[00:05:52] So you’re making phone calls in your downtime. What could loosely be defined as downtime, I guess. You’re making phone calls to voters yourself, prepping for the afternoon canvas. And then come the afternoon, you go out with another group of volunteers and knock on doors yourself. Or go out and meet a group of volunteers in another part of your turf, the area you’ve been assigned by the campaign and you are helping a larger group of people make calls at a nightly phone bank or something.

Wailin: [00:06:21] So it goes all the way into the evening.

Marty: [00:06:23] Into the evening and then you’ve got to do clean up from that. So you’re usually back in the office prepping for the next day, later in the day.

Wailin: [00:06:30] Oh wow. So then what time would you typically get off work?

Marty: [00:06:34] I would be in the office probably until 11 o’clock some nights.

Wailin: [00:06:40] And then it’s rinse and repeat, you’re back at 8:30 the next day?

Marty: [00:06:43] Yeah.

Wailin: [00:06:43] Did you have time to eat?

Marty: [00:06:45] Kind of.

Wailin: [00:06:48] What does the diet look like when you’re working this schedule?

Marty: [00:06:50] Not healthy. There was a pizza place next to our office that had a, I think it was $3.50 slice of pizza and drink special, which was usually lunch. And then probably also dinner a lot of days, but we would try and source food for dinner from somewhere else. Or what was really great with some volunteers would say, I am uncomfortable making phone calls and knocking on doors. But what I will do is I’ll be what was known as a comfort captain, which is coming in and cooking full meals and donating food to the office. And they were real superstars because they gave us actual food that we could eat. So we didn’t completely wither away.

Wailin: [00:07:34] So then when you finished with college, did you get into politics as a career right away?

Marty: [00:07:40] Yeah. So right out of college I started working with the Pennsylvania House Democratic Committee. At that point, the work life balance was probably about the same. It was less of a physically grueling job because you weren’t out there knocking doors every single day. But, I mean, we were in the office at 9:00 AM and there were nights where we would not leave the office until 9, 10, 11 o’clock at night.

Wailin: [00:08:04] Wow, and was it just understood that this is the nature of the work?

Marty: [00:08:08] Yeah. It was understood that that was the nature of the work. Actually, so I interned on a race in 2010 and my boss and I were filling out paperwork for my school and they kind of requested a schedule of hours. My boss at the time sent back a draft that just said all of them under hours. So there’s this understanding of campaign hours, which is essentially 12-plus hours a day, seven days a week.

Wailin: [00:08:38] And is that kind of culture you think set by the, the candidates themselves because the candidates seem to just have to be out and on all the time. So then it follows that the entire staff underneath them would be kind of keeping up that same energy level?

Marty: [00:08:56] There’s a degree of that. I think it’s coming from a couple of different places. One is, yeah, the candidate needs to be out and on all the time. If you’re running for office, if you’ve taken that leap, that is an all-consuming responsibility. And there’s, there’s a number of factors that make it all-consuming. It’s also this competitive drive that if you’re not working, your opponent is. So every minute you spend away from your desk and not working is, is a moment that your opponent is working and going to beat you.

[00:09:31] It’s this highly competitive drive to just make sure you’re putting more than a hundred percent into everything you’re doing.

Wailin: [00:09:37] What kind of burnout did you observe then in especially in those early, early jobs you had out of college?

Marty: [00:09:44] There’s a huge amount of burnout. Of my original cohort from 2008, the other people that were field organizers along with me, I think I am probably the only one still doing campaigns. Everyone else has gotten out.

Wailin: [00:10:00] So then how did you get the idea to start your own firm?

Marty: [00:10:03] I was the statewide field director for Governor Tom Wolf, who is currently the governor of Pennsylvania. So I had some opportunities to pick up campaign, a couple of campaign contracts for fundraising and decided to take that opportunity and start my own company.

[00:10:19] And that was July of 2015.

Wailin: [00:10:21] In your email to me, you had said that when you’re running your own firm now, you wanted to do it differently than the political campaigns you had been on in the past. In terms of the work schedule, allowing people to have a life outside of work and those kinds of things. Were those values in your mind when you started the company? Or did they come later as you built your business?

Marty: [00:10:42] They were very much in my mind when I started the company. Something that I did learn from working at within the Wolf Administration. It was the first job I had where people weren’t at the office until some crazy time at night and we were able to accomplish really large tasks. We were putting together statewide elections and coordinating thousands of moving pieces and we were doing that on a nine to five schedule. So we were undertaking these tasks that were no small feat and we were able to do that within a reasonable amount of time because people worked during the day. And you’ve dedicated the time you had at work to working and then you left.

[00:11:24] Additionally, even before that, my girlfriend at the time, now wife, works in medicine and during the 2014 election, this was our first campaign while we were together and she had no background in politics or campaigns. So as I’m working all these crazy hours, it was a real drain on my personal life. While we’re spending time together and I’ve got my phone tied to me because someone might email me or call me late in the night and I’m responsive to that. With her working in medicine, she said, basically when I go to work I’m dealing with life and death situations. And even in those cases I’ve got to put that down and go home at some point. So on your campaign right now, are you dealing with a life and death situation? And I kinda had to, well no. She helped me get a perspective there.

[00:12:17] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clipart plays.

Shaun: [00:12:20] After the break, Marty explains how he created that calm culture in his new consulting firm. But first let’s have Basecamp’s Head of Marketing, Andy, tell you a little about how he used Basecamp to fix up an old house.

Andy: [00:12:30] I bought a five-unit house in Detroit on Craigslist for $13,000. Which means it needs pretty much everything. And if you’ve ever fixed up an old house before, you know that there are a million little things to stay on top of. I had to get all these quotes from contractors and figure out how to get it cleaned out and make some sense of the project. And it came to me, I was like, I’ll just start up a project in Basecamp. I keep the plans for the house in there. I keep my budget that I update. I’ve added some people who are looking over this stuff for me as clients so they don’t have to be in it, in it. And it feels like a little bit of a work around like everybody else uses construction software, you know? But I don’t need that. It’s nice to have a clearing house for all this stuff. Yeah. So I hope when I check off all this to do is I’ll have a house that people can live in.

Shaun: [00:13:20] Try it for yourself at basecamp.com. And now, back to the show.

Wailin: [00:13:26] Marty started his consulting firm in 2015 with one other person and he opened for business with the idea that he would work saner hours.

Marty: [00:13:33] What I probably did more than sit down and have a concrete employee manual or company policy, which we do now. Rather than having that, I tried to more lead by example on that and say, I’m going to get in at X time in the morning and we’re going to work until five and then we’re going to go. It was something that was making my life a lot easier. So I wanted to build the company around that and start testing that out. This was new water for me, also, and I needed to make sure before I was going to start making this a core piece of how I manage my company, I need to make sure that that was something that I could do.

[00:14:14] And it’s scary because of that. And then it’s also, we are still very much working in an industry where this is not standard and this is very unusual. So I needed to test those waters as well and say, okay so how are other people going to respond to this? Is this going to be a detrimental thing that we’re going to have to carry? Or are we going to be able to stand up and say this is how we work. We get our job done. Look at how we can get the quality of work done that we’re proud of within this set framework that also gives us a home life.

Wailin: [00:14:48] Was that kind of a hard sell for some clients who would say, well I need you to be on your phone 24 hours a day cause I might text you or email you with a question and I’ll need a response ASAP.

Marty: [00:15:00] Yeah. There’s two pieces of that. First is, when you’re doing client service, you always have to be sensitive to making sure that the client feels like you’re on top of what tasks are assigned to you. What we do is rather than a hard eight-hour day and set hours, call it something like an instant comp time. So, we work unusual hours, but please make sure that you are compensating yourself for that by taking like a long lunch the next day or something, if you do end up working a little bit late one day.

[00:15:33] Some of it is just setting boundaries. Like if you get an email that doesn’t need or call that doesn’t need to be answered until the next morning, don’t return the call until the next morning. And eventually people understand how to work with you.

Wailin: [00:15:44] Because you’re modeling the behavior, right? So then it’s like you’re conditioning them to expect if it’s not, something’s on fire, I can kind of cool my jets and wait until the next morning.

Marty: [00:15:54] Yeah we will get the task done, we will get it done in a timely manner. But there’s very little that we can do for you at 10:30 at night sometimes that can also be done at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. There have been some really hard conversations we’ve had to have with clients and to be completely honest, we have lost work because of it, in some cases. Where they say, you’re going to be here 24/7 or we’re not interested. And we’ve had to say this is not something that we can provide. This is how we do our work. We stand by the quality of work we produce on this schedule. And at that point we’ve had to say, okay, well, we’re going different directions.

[00:16:36] There’s also been a lot of criticism of it in inside the industry and it’s always euphemisms, it’s you lack the drive to get the job done, is a common one. Or you’re not accessible. All of these things to say we’re not sitting at the office at 8:30 PM, we’re with our family or friends, really just doing anything to kind of unwind from the day and get ready for the next one.

Wailin: [00:17:00] Yeah, I mean, it’s really neat that you’ve been able to navigate that pressure. Especially, I’m sure in the early days of building your business you might not feel like you have the luxury of turning away clients, right? You might be more of the mindset of I’ll do anything for the client, right?

Marty: [00:17:13] Yeah, you know, it’s a constant pressure. I mean we’re four and a half years old, so we are not very old company and we are still very small. It’s myself and three staff. So there is still very much that pressure of I will do what I need to do to keep contracts. I do feel like we go above and beyond in some cases to make sure that people are happy with our work and comfortable with our working style. It’s a process of setting boundaries and saying I’m not going to wake up in the middle of night answering a phone call or email. I need the time away from my desk to make sure that I’m doing better work the next day for that particular client.

Wailin: [00:17:54] How do you manage the feast or famine dynamic that’s sometimes present in politics where maybe you’re working for a candidate, and they’re running this one campaign and they might not necessarily be someone who stays in the political scene as a client. They run a campaign, they’re not successful, and then they just kind of disappear off the map, right? Is it sometimes an interesting challenge to juggle going after clients and staying sustainable when, you know that’s the nature of the beast?

Marty: [00:18:20] Yeah, absolutely. It’s a huge challenge. Our business model is not one, I think, that makes sense outside of our industry because we basically need to find a way to stay floating throughout this feast and famine cycles. In the even year, you’ve got a lot of work. A lot of campaigns are out there, especially in presidential years. There’s a ton of campaigns and interest groups looking to get involved in the political scene. And then in the odd years, not a ton out there. So it’s absolutely a challenge with the industry to keep that consistent as possible, which is one of our challenges with growth, always. Growth has to be done very cautiously because of exactly that reason.

[00:19:05] There’s a large seasonal workforce in campaigns, so people who are basically bouncing from job to job. What we’ve tried to do is to try and build a vehicle that helps us ride those waves out just as campaign workers a little bit more so that we do have employment through the odd year and through that slow period.

[00:19:27] What we typically use that time for is preparing internal research and systems for ourselves that we can then deploy for clients in the even years. So we can use that time to make sure that the services and the work that we’re doing in the next cycle is stronger and better.

Wailin: [00:19:49] How do you manage your own media diet, both kind of reading the news, also social media. And what advice do you give to your staffers around managing that for themselves?

Marty: [00:20:01] My media diet is very poor. I think I spent too way too much time—

Wailin: [00:20:05] Mine too!

Marty: [00:20:05] I spend way too much time on Twitter because of the nature of our work. We do try and keep up with whatever media is local to our clients. One thing I have done is I’ve muted on Twitter a series of words. It includes the word Trump. I find it kind of keeps my Twitter feed from a 13 down to like an 11.

Wailin: [00:20:29] On a scale of what? 10?

Marty: [00:20:31] 10, probably. So that’s how I kind of try to manage that. But I have a rule that I don’t look at Twitter for the first 15 minutes of the day. My wife doesn’t read national news that much and she kind of has an explicit and implicit rule that it’s don’t talk to me about that. I don’t need to know the latest crisis. She’s completely off social media. She doesn’t have Facebook, she don’t have a Twitter, she doesn’t have anything. So we’ve got these sort of two opposite sides of this in our house where I’m on it constantly, both for work and then also because, I enjoy the political world. It’s the world’s worst hobby as well as my job. So I’m constantly watching and reading this stuff and just like unfortunately I’m the worst person to come to for self-care on how to manage media consumption.

Wailin: [00:21:25] Okay. So don’t ask Marty for advice on reducing your social media usage, but he does feel like he’s onto something when it comes to setting expectations for his employees.

Marty: [00:21:34] Within our own company. I tell my staff when we start, like, the worst way to impress me is to work too much. We feel a little bit better to give our staff the ability to do work that they’re really passionate about while also having space for friends and family and really anything that they can get value out of outside of the work that they do because it can be exhausting and very emotionally draining work and physically draining work. So having those sort of periods designated to recharge, I think, is critically important. And it’s something that I hope takes off in the industry.

[00:22:13] It’s worth checking out. There’s the campaign workers’ guild. I know the Bernie Sanders campaign recently signed a union contract and actually they’ve been unionized for since very early on in the campaign. And this is not to endorse him or anything, but to say there is movement at the top of the ticket right now on the democratic side at least to start institutionalizing this kind of work life balance and to put into agreements and employment agreements, the ability to have time off and to get that time away from the office a little bit.

[00:22:43] Broken By Design by Clipart plays.

Shaun: [00:22:56] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art. Special thanks to Kate Morgan for her help on this episode. You can find Marty’s business, MFStrategies at mfstrategies.com. They’re also on Twitter at @MFStrategies.

[00:23:09] The website we mentioned at the top of the episode that sends you a daily roundup of impeachment news is impeachment.fyi and our show is rework.fm where you can find show notes and transcripts for all of our episodes.

Wailin: [00:23:22] Rework is brought to you by Basecamp. Unlike some other project management tools which are a big long stress pile, Basecamp is split into teams and projects, so you only see what you need to see at that moment. Learn more and sign up today at basecamp.com.