Women’s Congressional Staff Association Conversation with Former Chiefs of Staff to the First Lady – Sept. 16, 2013

Former Chief of Staff to First Lady Laura Bush, Anita McBride (left) and Former Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama (right)

Former Chief of Staff to First Lady Laura Bush, Anita McBride (left) and Former Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama (right)

On Monday, September 16th, 2013, Anita McBride, former Chief of Staff to First Lady Laura Bush, and Jackie Norris, former Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, took part in a moderated panel hosted by the Women’s Congressional Staff Association (WCSA). WCSA is an official U.S. House of Representatives-recognized, bipartisan congressional staff organization dedicated to promoting career development opportunities for female congressional staffers.  WCSA’s Congressional sponsors are Representative Lois Capps (D-CA), Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Tessie Abraham, (Legislative Counsel to Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), President of the Women’s Congressional Staff Association, moderated the panel, which took place at the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center.

Tessie asked Anita and Jackie what the day-to-day tasks were like as a chief of staff to a first lady. Anita explained that a day was never typical, other than knowing that you started your day at 6:45am and usually ended at 10pm.  The most important thing, Anita said, was knowing how to prioritize the tasks at hand and “pivot from important to urgent”.  There were always priorities in a day that were very different in nature.  Anita described how she would find herself switching between getting involved in planning a state dinner for Queen Elizabeth to planning a trip to Afghanistan. When an unexpected disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina occurred, Anita and the East Wing staff would have to be flexible and spend the majority of their time helping the first lady organize visits to support relief efforts throughout the Gulf Coast – making more than 20 trips to the region.

Jackie agreed that each day was different, and that she would wake up every day worrying about herself or the first lady making a mistake in the spotlight of the media.

Tessie asked Anita and Jackie what separates good employees from exceptional employees. Anita said that confidentiality and loyalty to the principals or organization that the employee is working for are essential. One thing that Anita felt was most important working in the White House was that the employee understood that they had “temporary custodianship” of the position that they held. The employee in any organization should think of the big picture, and have a willingness to do whatever it takes with a positive attitude. Jackie agreed, and added that honor and follow-through are vital to being an exceptional employee. She said that it can sometimes feel like you are “drinking out of a fire hose,” and that work can be overwhelming. Following through, responding to all of those emails, or completing all of the things on a to-do list can be difficult, but is also rewarding for yourself and those that you interact with – plus it is an important reflection of the person you are working for.

Anita and Jackie were asked for advice for women in the early stages of their career. Jackie said to “work your heart out” and be a sponge if possible – “but at the same time, make sure that you have work-life balance”. She said that setting boundaries shows your employer that you have a sense of discipline and thoughtfulness. Jackie feels that giving oneself time to reflect is essential for a sound mind. Anita said that your first job isn’t your last, and that you are building your skills and your resume for your future career.  Always networking and keeping your eyes open are lifelong skills to have.  It can take time to achieve a proper work-life balance, but doing your best at your job and earning a good reputation for caring about your work are crucial characteristics in the workplace.

The floor was then opened up to questions. Megan, an MPA student in DC, asked Jackie and Anita which things that they wished that they did better while starting out in their careers. Anita advised that you should be prepared, but recognize you can’t anticipate everything. If you don’t have the answer to something, be resourceful enough to find out the answer and seek guidance from the correct people. Jackie and Anita agreed that the people that always say “yes” don’t always get everything done, and that honesty is the best policy.

Overall, it was an empowering evening for the women congressional staff members that attended.  In addition to being glad to see each other again after quite some time, Anita and Jackie loved having the opportunity to meet young women who are at the beginning of their DC careers and sharing the example of bipartisanship. One of the most important lessons of the evening was hearing how these two women – representing different parties and political philosophies worked so closely with each other during the presidential transition of 2009 to ensure the smoothest possible start for the new Administration.

-Alexandra Thornton, Graduate Student Assistant