Academics, Guest Posts

MBAs in Public Service: Lessons from two Congressional Candidates

By Susannah Fuller-
Ben Cullop (Darden ’11)

On Wednesday, April 18, Darden’s Business and Public Policy Club hosted Ben Cullop (Darden ’11) and Roger Dean “RD” Huffstetler (HBS ’10) for a discussion on how an MBA helps prepare leaders to campaign for elected office. Ben and RD have each spent the better part of the past year campaigning in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District for the Democratic nomination to challenge freshman Republican Congressman Tom Garrett in the general election this fall. Ben announced the suspension of his campaign the night before but was kind enough to join us the following day with RD to impart what he learned from the process.

In a relaxed and cordial atmosphere, Ben and RD fielded questions from club president Ben Leiner (MBA ’19) and a crowd of enthusiastic students. The conversation covered an array of

Roger Dean “RD” Huffstetler (HBS ’10)

topics, including life on the campaign trail, the merits of leadership, and the opportunities an MBA uncovers to gain skills and consider a political career.

Coming from Washington, D.C. prior to Darden, I am no stranger to the world of politics. That said, both Ben and RD made some excellent points that are worth reflecting on and sharing as Q4 wraps up, summer internships are around the corner, and the 2018 midterms loom over the horizon:

  1. The ability to lead is universal. Ben and RD extolled the virtues of an MBA when it comes to running for political office. The management aspect of a campaign and running a congressional office (RD previously served as chief of staff to Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton) are clear. Running an organization, whether in the private or public sector, requires a distinct set of tools. An MBA helps cultivate these skills – developing an argument and being able to defend it can manifest itself as a cold call during at 8:00 a.m. lecture or a tough question on economic development during a town hall on the campaign trail.
    Ben mentioned that an MBA can be a distinct advantage, as compared to other advanced degrees, as students are constantly asking, “what do we need to get this done?” Distilling problems down to their essence and articulating a coherent solution is a key ability of effective managers and politicians.
  2. Business has a role to play in politics and public policy. Business constitutes a strong part of the American polity. Ben and RD both stressed the need for greater business literacy and focus within both parties as well as Congress. Many businesses are now driving social policy forward faster than the government can. Recognizing this power and harnessing it is important for politicians – whether in the Virginia 5th district or on Capitol Hill. RD mentioned that coming off the heels of the Tom Tom Founder’s Festival, a week-long event hosted in Charlottesville celebrating entrepreneurial innovation, “we can see great advances from the private sector leading on social issues.” This message resonated with the audience.
  3. Focus on the process; the inputs are what matter. At Darden, “trust the process” is an oft-repeated phrase for first years looking to survive the core curriculum, recruiting activities, and the seemingly endless stream of speakers and events. RD and Ben both reiterated the need to focus on the process of the campaign instead of the end goal of winning an election. The ability to work towards something meaningful and develop a learning mindset matters more than simply achieving a given goal. The title of “managing director” or “congressman” is not important. The work is.
  4. A network is more than a network. Running for Congress is hard work. RD and Ben mentioned their reliance on the network they created in business school, not for fundraising dollars but for emotional support and counsel. The relationships in school are not transactional, and the interpersonal connections that one makes in life produce their own intrinsic value.
  5. Authenticity and hard work move mountains. Both candidates stressed that the mindset cultivated at business school and in the private sector is important. Authenticity is key not only to effective workplace relationships but also to connecting with voters on the campaign trail. One cannot cut corners when building a business and politics should reflect this reality as well. RD and Ben sought to make this central to their campaigns from the onset, and it was refreshing to hear given the empty rhetoric that can often drive national political debate.

The stories and examples that Ben and RD used to make these points were insightful and engaging. It is easy to see that the people of Virginia’s 5th Congressional District would be lucky to have either candidate as their representative to Congress. It was a privilege to hear them speak and they gave Darden students a lot to think about with summer internships and graduation fast approaching.

Written by Russ Wilson, Class of 2019 Darden MBA