How The Most Powerful People Get Things Done: 4 Tips From A White House Staffer



We all have big decisions to make and deadlines to meet. And sometimes it can feel overwhelming.

This got me wondering: how do the most powerful people get things done?

When lives are on the line, literally trillions of dollars are at stake and the world is watching… how do people handle those situations? There have to be things we can learn from them.

So I called my friend James Waters.

James was Deputy Director of Scheduling at the White House and served in government for 10 years. (I’ve interviewed James before about his experiences as a Navy SEAL platoon commander.)

James had some tremendous insights about how they do things at The White House that line up with a lot of what the formal research is telling us.

Now if you’re looking for Republicans-this, Democrats-that, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m not interested in partisan debate; this is about how people making very high-stakes decisions in a fast-paced environment get things accomplished, and what we can learn from them.

Let’s get to it.


Be Responsive

It ain’t like an episode of “The West Wing.”

Watching that show you might think that 5 people get everything done. In reality, between the (actual) West Wing, the East Wing, the Cabinet and the Executive Office of the President thousands of people work at The White House.

How do you make insanely big decisions with such a huge number of people involved? Everyone has to be responsive and engaged so that input can be given, approvals made and action accomplished.

We all know people who have 1000 unread emails in their inbox or don’t pick up their phone. This doesn’t fly at The White House. Here’s James:

When I would send an email, and it didn’t matter to whom, everybody would respond right away. It could have been the most senior person or the most junior. You make a phone call and know he’s not there, yet they respond right away and we make the decision. You had to be responsive rather than be an obstacle. I can’t tell you the number of times in private business or in the broader Navy where I sent something as simple as an email that needs input and I never heard back. Some are just not as conscientious about responding, whether it’s someone very senior or very junior. If the leaders of the organization are responsive it sets a good standard for everybody else.

Maybe you’re saying, “I can’t respond to everything that fast!” Since you’re not at The White House, that’s okay. But you do need to ask yourself what’s important and urgent? That’s what matters and that gets your attention ASAP.

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

As technology visionary Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload; it’s filter failure.”

Your attention is limited and valuable. You need good filters. A good first step is to set up an email filter so priority emails (from your boss or key stakeholders) get attention immediately.

Via The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload:

…you can set up e-mail filters in most e-mail programs and phones, designating certain people whose mail you want to get through to you right away, while other mail just accumulates in your inbox until you have time to deal with it. And for people who really can’t be away from e-mail, another effective trick is to set up a special, private e-mail account and give that address only to those few people who need to be able to reach you right away, and check your other accounts only at designated times.

(For more on what the most organized people do every day, click here.)

So you know what’s important and you’re making sure that gets to you immediately. But how can you get these vital things done right and get them done quickly?


Don’t Overanalyze. Make A Decision.

The modern world provides us with tons of information. All that data often makes simple decisions easy. But it can also make complex decisions feel impossible. How can we wade through all this info? It’s paralyzing.

At The White House, decisions need to be made quickly because lives could be on the line. Paralysis isn’t an option. Here’s James:

Wherever possible avoid paralysis by analysis. I think analysis and data are super important. No matter what organization you’re working in you’ve got to get things right and know the data that backs it up. But too many organizations get paralyzed because they analyze for too long and they haven’t developed the instincts to make decisions. They end up postponing things in favor of more and more analysis. That’s frustrating for everyone in the organization. Being able to make decisions when you know you have imperfect data is so critical. I was always taught that “A good decision now is better than a perfect decision in two days.” Many people I know in business recoil at that statement. Many colleagues in graduate school had come from places where they were analysts at a company and their job was to analyze and analyze and analyze. They couldn’t believe somebody would say that you should actually encourage people to make a decision with imperfect information — but I firmly believe you should. I think that’s really important for leaders to incorporate. It’s something that the White House has to do all the time. It’s great to analyze things but at some stage you’re just spinning your wheels.

And the research backs James up. When I spoke to Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz here’s what he had to say:

The standard way of thinking about this is that more choice will help some people and hurt no one. But it turns out that when people have too many options, instead of being liberated by all these choices, they’re paralyzed.

So what should we do when we need to decide quickly?

In my interview with Duke professor Dan Ariely (and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions) he advised you’re more likely to do the right thing if you take the “outside perspective” — in other words if you ask yourself, “What advice would I give to someone else in this situation?”:

If I had to give advice across many aspects of life, I would ask people to take what’s called “the outside perspective.” And the outside perspective is easily thought about: “What would you do if you made the recommendation for another person?” And I find that often when we’re recommending something to another person, we don’t think about our current state and we don’t think about our current emotions. We actually think a bit more distant from the decision and often make the better decision because of that.

(For more on what Astronauts, Samurai and Navy SEALs can teach you about critical decision making, click here.)

So you have a shortcut for when decisions need to be made quickly. But not every decision is going to work out. Even with tons of data, we all make mistakes sometimes.

How differently do you think your workplace would handle challenges if every single decision they made was featured prominently on CNN and your boss knew for a fact if things weren’t going well they would be fired in four years?

That level of accountability changes how you work. So how do you cope with that? You have to keep getting better.


Always Be Learning

At The White House and in your own life, making the same mistake more than once can be disastrous. You need a system that isn’t merely focused on getting things done, but also on improving. Here’s James:

The second you say, “Oh, this is just the way we’ve always done things” you’re doomed to failure. I’m always looking for ways that we can improve what we’re doing, even if it’s something that we’re so reliant on. Maybe it’s because things are very fast-paced or because lives depend on it but carrying out business as usual is just not an option at the White House. It becomes paramount to come in and help figure out how to constantly make things better.

How do they do that? One way is through a strong belief in informal mentorship. If the old pros don’t teach the young bucks, the same mistakes are going to get made over and over with every new hire. Here’s James:

One lesson I’ve taken from the White House is that it’s critical to provide mentorship to people who are junior to you. The second you’re too good to give time to junior people is the second you’re out of touch, and that you’re missing an opportunity to assist somebody else’s personal development. In the Navy and in finance too, one of the things I’ve been shocked about is that you don’t necessarily have this culture of mentorship. Every once in a while you’ll come across somebody who is seriously interested in a junior person’s development, but it’s definitely not the norm.

And when bestselling author Shane Snow dug through the research, he saw the same thing James did.

Turns out formal mentors don’t help. Why? Mentors need to care about you. Here’s Shane:

In great mentorship relationships the mentor doesn’t just care about the thing that you’re learning, they care about how your life goes. They are with you for the long haul. They are willing to say, “No,” and to tell you what you’re doing is wrong. Those kinds of relationships yield outsized results in terms of future salaries and happiness.

(More on how to find the best mentor for you here.)

How else did A-players at the White House create a culture of improvement?

The top people James worked with were always reading. They knew their areas inside and out but they also knew about the other priorities of the administration and anything related to work they’d be involved in.

Nobody showed up unprepared. Here’s James:

The people who excelled were those who clearly knew their stuff. They read up – a lot – on whatever issue they were discussing. These guys would go into meetings about politics or policy or budget or international affairs, and they were so sharp that they knew how to speak the language and ask the right questions, no matter the topic. They became experts in the topic. They read all the time and they would constantly work to learn more. A lesson I took away is that just because you’re a senior person doesn’t mean you should be disconnected or not involved or not intellectually curious. You don’t see that push to be an expert in a broad array of topics as often in business or in the military.

And what do you have to do to make sure you’re continuously improving? Bestselling author Dan Coyle told me that experts commit to the long term.

Asking someone “How long are you going to be doing this?” was the best predictor of how skilled that person would end up being.  Here’s Dan:

The question that ended up being the most predictive of skill was “How long are you going to be doing this?” Commitment was the difference maker. The people who combined commitment with a little bit of practice, their skills went off the charts.

Commit to the long haul. It even works for mice:

(For more on how to get better at getting better, click here.)

Be responsive all the time, make decisions and really strive to improve your processes…? At this point you’re probably saying, “That’s a lot.” How do White House staffers find that level of motivation? It ain’t about the money.


Have Passion

If you don’t care, you won’t make it in a place like The White House. The hours are too long, the stakes too high and for the caliber of talent there, the pay is too low. That’s why you need to believe in what you’re doing. Here’s James:

I think one of the most important things is finding something you’re passionate about doing. People get burned out working at the White House. I did, too. It’s so intense for so long, there’s no letup, and you don’t get paid anything – you’ve really got to have passion for what you’re doing. If you don’t, you might as well leave. There’s no point. I was passionate personally about doing something service-oriented within a particular administration at an incredibly difficult time for the country. I always encourage people to find that passion as early as they can. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, you should get out.

Scott Barry Kaufman looked at the research and saw that passion really does make a big difference.

Via Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined:

Elderly individuals who were harmoniously passionate scored higher on various indicators of psychological adjustment, such as life satisfaction, meaning in life, and vitality, while they reported lower levels of negative indicators of psychological adjustment such as anxiety and depression.

Studies show the top career regret is being too focused on money. Wharton professor Adam Grant’s research shows we’re more motivated when we see how our work positively affects others.

James agrees:

You’re not there because of the paycheck. You’re definitely not. Yet I look back at my White House days and I’m so satisfied that it was a great experience; I loved every second of it. The lesson I draw from that is just because you’re not getting paid a ton of money, doing something that’s service-oriented, that’s for the greater good, that can make your job so satisfying. We had a summer where we worked 18-hour days, 7 days a week. It was rough, but we were there with a bunch of people we liked and we believed in what we were doing. It was completely worth it.

And when we do things because of passion, not money, the quality is higher.

Via Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

“Our results were quite startling,” the researchers wrote. “The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality. Moreover, the artists reported feeling significantly more constrained when doing commissioned works than when doing non-commissioned works.”

(For more on how to love your job, click here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s pull it all together into something you can use.


Sum Up

Here’s what James says you can learn from The White House:

  1. Be Responsive. Know what’s important and make sure you’re on top of it.
  2. Don’t Overanalyze. Make A Decision. Information is great but often we can’t wait for perfect answers. “A good decision now is better than a perfect decision in two days.”
  3. Always Be Learning. Find a mentor. Be a mentor. Keep reading and commit to the long term to become an expert.
  4. Have Passion. Focusing too much on money is the #1 career regret. When we care, our work is better and we’re more satisfied.

No, the fate of the world is not resting on your shoulders.

But only you can be the Commander-In-Chief of your life. Time to act like it.

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