When I accepted the position developing Ethics.gov for the White House late last summer, I wondered what sort of people I’d be working with. The conclusion that I arrived at was that the kind of folks who get hired by the White House are probably among the nation’s best at what they do, and that this raw talent would be their defining characteristic. I was wrong. I don’t want this to be misinterpreted—I worked with some hugely capable people, but it was not their expertise that was their distinguishing characteristic. The trait shared by all White House and top agency employees—I don’t mean the Senate-confirmed folks, but the workaday staffers—is reliability.
These folks do what they say they’re going to do, when they say they’re going to do it, at a level that meets or exceeds expectations. If something occurs that is going to prevent the task from being completed in that ideal manner, they say so as early as possible, explain how they’re going to remedy it, and then do so.
It was pretty routine for me to ask somebody to do something for me, and for the thing that I asked for to actually be foolish. I’d think I knew how something should be done, or what needed to be done, and ask for that. The result was that the the person would do the thing that I should have asked to be done, and as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves handles the requests of Bertie Wooster, they would present the completed task as if it was my idea to do it correctly in the first place.
These are almost uniformly people receiving salaries significantly below the market rate, working in the shabby confines of the Old Executive Office Building (adjacent to the White House, where White House employees actually work), putting in staggering hours. Early on, I lamented to a few co-workers that I’d been working 12-hour days for the past week; the response was silence.
If one may consider working for the White House to be a high point of career success, then reliability turns out to be a wildly valuable trait. A temperamental genius might be admired, but not many folks will want to work with her. But somebody who is in perhaps the top ten percent of their field in terms of talent can rise to the top one percent by simply being reliable. So be reliable. Maybe you’ll wind up at the White House.