5 career lessons from former White House press secretary Dana Perino
“One day I am going to work in the White House.”
According to my parents, that’s what I declared at age seven, while standing on top of a milk box—and under an American flag—outside the front door of our Colorado home. It happened a few days after the very first time I had the privilege of visiting the White House.
Years later, on my first morning as White House press secretary, I got a call from the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings. I considered Margaret both a mentor and friend, and I think she must have sensed my anxiety that day. I had just been named the first woman press secretary of a Republican administration, serving a President who—at the time—was struggling in the polls. Not to mention, I had to fill the big shoes of my good friend and predecessor Tony Snow.
“How ya doin’?” she asked.
“Well, actually, I’m pretty nervous,” I said.
“Well, you’re gonna have to put your big girl panties on and deal with it!”
So that’s what I did.
This was one of the days in my life that helped me realize that it doesn’t matter where you come from. Whether you went to an Ivy League school or grew up in a city or come from a farm, you can end up advising the president in the Oval Office.
When I decided to write my new book, And the Good News Is… , I wanted to take readers on my journey from Wyoming to Washington, and to offer advice to young professionals striving to take their careers to the next level. Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned during my time in the White House.
Never be afraid to move
As an ambitious young professional, know that it’s okay to move—not just geographically, but to another job opportunity. And that applies even to companies and organizations considered the gold standard in their industry, be it finance, media, technology, publishing, government or anything else. When you work for the best, it’s sometimes very difficult to leave because you worry that nothing else will ever measure up.
This was certainly true at the White House. However, for younger or less experienced staff, moving up in the West Wing could take a long time because few people left the top jobs. In that situation, I’d advise young people to consider leaving the White House to take on more responsibility somewhere else—on Capitol Hill or at one of the federal agencies. That way they’ll continue to get experience that’s relevant and useful to the White House and may be able to return—in a more senior position—at a later date.
Building trust is priority No. 1
In 2010, Barbara Bush came to a mentoring event I hosted in Houston. When we invited her to kick off the evening with some brief remarks, she was surprised. “Why would they ask me? I’ve never worked a day in my life,” she said. True, in a sense—all the work she’d ever done had been in service to her country or for charity.
In her speech she said, “Earlier today I called my son, George, and asked what it was like to work with Dana. And then I called Dana and asked her what it was like to work for my son. And what I concluded from listening to them describe each other, is that loyalty goes both ways. That’s what good partnership is all about.”
Mrs. Bush was right—because we knew President Bush was loyal to us, we became more loyal to him. Loyalty was our glue. It meant we had complete trust in each other, allowed us to be honest about problems, and ensured we remained focused on productive outcomes.
Being a great manager means you’ll sometimes lose valuable employees
A productive outcome in business can mean losing a valuable member of your team. Successful managers should encourage their employees to grow so they can be promoted or even move on to another job. Losing an employee can be inconvenient, but it’s also proof that you helped your employees develop valuable skills. If an employee is stuck, ask yourself why. It may not be completely their fault.
Put your people at ease
The best managers also know how to read their people and to keep them from being paralyzed with fear. For example, if the President asked his aide to call me into the Oval Office, he’d say, “And tell her it’s nothing bad.” This put me at ease and allowed me to walk into that formidable room with a clear head. Today, Bill Shine of Fox News does the same.
Love is not a career killer
In 1998, I was debating whether or not to move to England with my husband Peter. A good family friend told me, “If you do anything in life, don’t give up on a chance to be loved—he may be the only man who will ever truly love you. Don’t miss it.”
She gave me the courage to make the move. Choosing to be loved was the best decision of my life. I almost talked myself out of it. It turned out to be the only argument I didn’t mind losing.