Last week I was fortunate to accompany members of the Central Florida Partnership to our nation’s Capitol to discuss among other things the importance of university research and entrepreneurship. There were about 70 of us on a trip beautifully orchestrated by Jacob Stuart and his staff where we met with members of the Florida congressional delegation in small groups. I was assigned to Jacob’s group no doubt to ensure that an experienced hand was watching the new guy. It was not my first time interacting with legislators (I worked for the Wisconsin Legislative Council many years ago), but it was my first foray onto Capitol Hill.
When I learned of this trip, I debated going. It was two days out of my busy schedule. It had a nontrivial price tag and federal initiatives are much more important to research in science and engineering than business. Yet, Legislators often overlook the importance of business education in commercializing STEM-based research. The trip was an opportunity to educate legislators on this topic, support my STEM colleagues, champion public-private partnerships, and network with many key community leaders. When I decided to go, I thought, “either this is going to be one of the more interesting things I have done since coming to UCF or it is going to be two days of my life I’m never getting back.” Happily, it turned out to be the former rather than the latter.
The trip offered several great lessons in how to successfully step out of your comfort zone. For one, It never hurts to have an experienced guide. Jacob, who had spent years on the Hill navigated us through the protocols that come with meeting our representatives, pointing out the rituals, norms and behaviors expected of visitors to Congressional offices. He also explained the crowded calendars of our legislators, the need to be succinct and the importance of staying on message. If you didn’t know what to do, the fallback was to observe and take your queue from Jacob. He would pull you through.
Second, make sure you know what is important to your hosts. They are going to listen to you to the extent that they think you have something important to tell them….stuff they need to know to be successful–not stuff that is just important to you. For example, legislators are about bang for the buck. They have busy schedules and people have lots of issues. The more pervasive the problem you bring, the more important it is to them and the more likely solving it will get them re-elected. So don’t talk about you, talk about how the issue impacts as many people as possible….. In this case, why it is important to the county.
Third, understand how people in this new setting learn and speak in their language, not yours. I remember this well from my days in Wisconsin: Legislators learn by constituents’ story telling much more than they do through data analysis. I was trained in my world to do just the opposite- to put my faith in carefully collected and analyzed data, but I saw stories kill data in legislative settings all the time. If you wanted to win with legislators you had to bring them citizens who could effectively tell stories that were consistent with the data. The whole Central Florida Partnership trip was an exercise in this…here were a broad cross-section of regular everyday citizen’s, not paid lobbyists, visiting their representatives to tell them stories they needed to hear to ensure America’s future success. Charts, tables, regression coefficients, standard errors, and effect sizes need not apply.
These are lessons every student needs to learn to be effective in new settings, but the biggest payoff from the trip for me was the ideas, insights and new contacts I got from talking to people I don’t normally hang out with. The two-day trip generated ideas for three blog posts: Today’s post, next Monday’s post on Shawn Seipler and Clean the World, and a yet-to-be scheduled post on very successful people who think it is important to go back to school and finish their degree. I also got ideas for two new degree programs (my staff will be thrilled to read this) as well as some constructive feedback on one of our signature programs that would have been difficult to get in other settings. Finally, I met several influential people who would now take my call when I wanted to engage them in some way for the benefit of UCF. All in all, an efficient use of my time and the college’s money.