Most people know Jack Martin as the global chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies or as one of the inventors of public affairs. I know him these days as my boss, but for the last two decades I’ve known Jack as the source of great advice. I’m not sure he’d ever consider himself my mentor, but every time I’ve reached out he has given me helpful, if bracing, counsel that has stuck with me to this day.
In 1995, I went to work for Jack’s first company, Public Strategies, Inc., but because it was transitioning out of political consulting and into full-time public affairs – and I was stubborn enough to want to stick with politics – I politely excused myself after three months. Two years later I started my own political consulting firm. After a while the firm had grown big enough to barely cover the mortgage, payroll, and taxes but not much else. I felt stressed out, exhausted, and stuck. I didn’t know how to run a business. I only knew my corner of campaign consulting, so I reached out to Jack, the only person I knew who had translated political smarts into business success.
“Don’t run your own company,” he told me over breakfast. By that he meant that not one single client in the history of my company was hiring me because I could competently file a payroll tax return, spend hours photocopying documentation, or ship reports to the correct recipient. I had become fond of admonishing our staff that no one won an election because we ate a steak dinner on an expense account – the more important truth was that no one won an election because of our expense account policy, either.
Rather, my core competency was delivering strategic advice based upon public records analysis. That’s what people thought they were paying me to do, not to process payroll. Any time I spent on the seemingly crucial yet mundane tasks of running a small business was time I wasn’t writing research reports and advising clients. I could hire interns to photocopy, accountants to file taxes, and runners to fetch case files from court archives. I couldn’t pay anyone to learn for me or generate my original ideas for me. It took me years to fully accept this advice and let go of a thousand tiny details, but once I did the company grew and became self-sustaining.
That’s when I called him again for help and learned the second lesson. I had agreed to manage a hopeless underdog of a gubernatorial campaign, and, through a combination of luck, timing, and instinct, we had found ourselves within striking distance. There was only one problem: We were in the Fog of War. A surplus of conventional wisdom, informed opinions, and conflicting advice had me twisted in a knot. I knew there was a right thing to do, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion of what it might have been, so I reached out to Jack in hopes that he would show me the way.
“The answer’s in your data,” he said, pointing at the thick poll binder. Great. He wasn’t going to bail me out with his reserves of wisdom born of hard-won experience. I was going to have to figure it out for myself and walk through my own personal valley of death. At some point, my candidate and his kitchen cabinet were going to look at me for an answer, and I wasn’t going to be able to hide behind, “Well, Jack Martin says…”
I was going to have to think and speak for myself. And with conventional wisdom swirling through the spin cycle every day awash with conflicting opinions, I would do well to rely on the data. After all, someone paid a lot of money so that the data could tell me a story. It was up to me to listen. The data has no conflicts of interest, political agenda, or personal bias. The data is just the data, waiting for me to derive meaning from it. In effect, though I doubt he would put it like this, he was teaching me to recognize the world as it is and act accordingly.
Recently, I decided it was time for me to leave politics, and, despite quitting a job for him after three months and only hitting him up for advice since then, Jack graciously opened the door for me. I went back onto his payroll, which is when he taught me my most recent lesson: loyalty. With nothing of note to gain, Jack had remained loyal to me as I figured my life out, always meeting me for breakfast when I contacted him, always looking me in the eye and telling me what I needed to hear. I never would have given it a second thought had he grown bored of me or decided there were others more deserving of his attention. Instead, he taught me what it means to stick by someone even when it doesn’t do you a lick of good. (For that matter, I don’t think he ever let me pay for the eggs and coffee even though my company, thanks in no small part to his advice, has become a self-sustaining enterprise that I was able to hand off to my employees.)
Since working for Jack in the nineties, his company had been purchased and then merged with a global communications firm. He has come a long way since his days as a political operator, but the lessons he has taught me in the ensuing years still guide me: Spend your time on where you make the biggest impact, recognize the world as it is, make up your own mind, and remain loyal.
Jason Stanford is the Senior Vice President of Global Communications at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. In the 1990s, he founded Stanford Campaigns, a political consulting company that survives to this day without him, something he is tremendously proud of. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, who now runs Stanford Campaigns, and two sons, of whom he is also tremendously proud.