98 : Mixing Politics + Work (w/ Nigel Stephens)
Zach sits down with Nigel Stephens, the director of government relations for Accenture Federal Services, to discuss the mixing of politics and work. Nigel breaks down the real definitions of economics and politics and details his role as the primary liaison with members of Congress and policy makers for AFS.
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Zach: Nigel, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Nigel: I am doing well. Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate the invitation.
Zach: I appreciate you being here. For those of us who don't know you, would you mind sharing a little bit about yourself?
Nigel: Well, I'm a bit of a local in the Washington, D.C. area. I was actually born in Jamaica, but my family came here in the '80s. I grew up in Maryland and still reside in Maryland. I'm in Prince George’s County. I've been involved in political campaigns since I was a child. My parents were very active in the community. My mother was a teacher at Montgomery College for decades, and my dad was an entrepreneur. He was an accountant and ran his business out of our basement for a number of years. So he was very active in the community, and that was just a part of my upbringing. So part of this discussion about being in government relations, I've been in government or government relations as a professional for over 20 years.
Nigel: Yeah, and I--you know, I love politics, and I love the role of government as it plays a role in everyone's life. The negotiations--there's an old saying--the negotiations of and maneuvering of politics dictates almost every aspect of your life, whether you like it or not, from the safety and quality of the food you eat and the air you breathe to the education you receive, to whether or not your favorite sports team gets the stadium or not, you know? Negotiations in politics controls all of that. It determines all of that. When I was a senior in high school, I was blessed enough to get an internship with Senator Ted Kennedy from Massachusetts, the Lion of the Senate, and it was there that I really got an education and learned the real definition of the terms "economics" and "politics," right? Economics is the distribution of scarce resources, and politics is simply the method by which we determine who gets what, when, and how. So once learning that I fell in love with the place, and I have never left Capitol Hill since. I've worked in it, on it, or related to it every way I possibly could since that time.
Zach: And you know what? It's that profile, Nigel, why we're so excited to talk to you today, 'cause as you know, we're talking about politics at work, and I'm excited to talk to you today because in a large sense, I mean, really, politics is your work. Can you talk a little bit about your role as Accenture's primary liaison with members of Congress and policy makers? Like, what does that--what does that mean?
Nigel: For me, I lead Accenture Federal Services' government relations team. So I am an advocate for all of the work that we do for the federal government as a client. I really like that, 'cause it's my way of giving back while still having a professional career. I mean, when I'm doing--when I'm having conversations with new joiners, I really try to get them to keep things in perspective of what they do, whether you're a technologist, you're a coder, you're a strategist, whatever it is. What is the big picture of what you're doing? I mean, we provide services to clients and help individuals get their student loans processed. Healthcare. You know, all of those types of meaningful things that make a real difference in real people's lives, and my direct role in government relations really falls into four categories. Strategic advisor, facilitator, translator, and educator. So I provide the strategic advice based on what's happening with authorizations and appropriations and funding of programs to my business team so they can provide better service to their clients. A facilitator to try to promote communication and coordination between the private sector and industry and the government. As a translator, I--so I'm not a lawyer. I went to business school, so I was trained in--I went and got an MBA, so I was trained in that. Communicating and translating the thoughts and intents of business to the government, to legislators, and vice versa, and then finally is educator. There's a lot of--any given day, members and their staff are dealing with hundreds of different issues, and they can't be subject matter experts in every single one. So part of my responsibility--I think the largest part of my responsibility is really serving as an educator to those on the Hill about what the art of the possible is, about what's happening in the private sector, about what industry is doing, about what new things are happening in technology and how that innovation can really help them meet their real core goal, which is providing service to citizens.
Zach: Nigel, now, you know what I love? Is that you out here just--you casually, casually dropping bombs, right? Right? Like, I got to give you the [Flex bomb sfx]. I got to give you the Flex bomb. It's crazy. I mean, my goodness gracious. Okay, that's dope.
Nigel: Did you for real just drop the Funkmaster Flex bomb?
Zach: I did. I got a whole soundboard over here, man. I be like [haha sfx], you know?
Nigel: [?] You're doing it.
Zach: I got all kinds of stuff over here, man, but look, I really appreciate the answer. It leads me to the next question. Now, has there ever been a situation where your own life experience has shaped how you approach a policy discussion? Like, how do you decide when and where you, you know, flex and let people know, "Hey, actually, I know what I'm talking about," versus where you decide to kind of lean back and let things play a little bit.
Nigel: Take it to a bigger picture. It's not so much on a specific policy area, but for my life experience, I think the lesson would be to be vigilant about building your skills and have confidence in your abilities. When I was starting out my career, there were your veteran rock star African-American lobbyists, right? Your Vernon Jordans. Your Toni Cook Bushs. Your Ben Johnsons. They were another upper echelon of influence, but there weren't that many at just the general corporate level, right? Even more, there wasn't really a clear path to where I wanted to go, which is at that corporate level. So I had to really build a diverse set of skills. You know, whether it be political management, financial management, an MBA, where do I get the diverse skills that I'm going to need to piece together to be effective in the role that I want to get to, and then have confidence that I'm building the capabilities to bring my best self to the table? Now, applying that to the policy realm, you know, Accenture's about technology and innovation, right? How is tech being used and how can it be leveraged in the federal government, and how can those best practices in the commercial sector be applied in the federal government to help them bring those services to citizens more effectively? And then even more, in our current atmosphere, at a cheaper price. Now, in government they may not always see the vision, right? They may not be on the tip of the spear of innovation, and unfortunately sometimes inertia and, you know, "We've always done it this way," "This is the safest way of doing it," can be the worst enemy to progress, regardless of how much that progress is needed or regardless of the benefits that could occur, right? But we have to be vigilant as policy makers and as a company trying to provide services to the policy makers. You've got to be vigilant about building those skills and capabilities. You know, what's that new--is it AI? Automation? Machine learning? Is it migrating things to the cloud? Is it ERP systems? What are those innovative things that are happening in the commercial sector? Building those skills and capabilities, and then also being confident in that what we're offering to the client is in the best interest of the client.
Zach: Man, I love that. And, you know, again, it's almost like--it's almost like, you know, you've been doing this for two decades, Nigel. [both laugh] I would imagine that your role demands a certain level of intellectual [?]. You have to know what you're talking about when you're coming in and you're advocating for the services that Accenture provides, but also at the same time a certain level of emotional and social intelligence in actually--in how you actually engage those topics with your audience. Can you talk a little bit about the role that emotional and social intelligence play practically in your role day-to-day?
Nigel: Yeah. There's always the requirement of learning, lifelong learning. You've got to be committed to it, right? I was telling some colleagues the other day that my kitchen table is covered with books that I never felt my kitchen table would be covered with, about AI and coding and automation and those kinds of things, because I have to really understand the subject matter even though we have subject matter experts that will be exponentially smarter in these things than I ever will be, right? They live it, but for me with the emotional and the social intelligence, you know, as a lobbyist, I always try to keep in mind that elected officials and their staff are always primarily focused on outcomes. They're always focused on meeting the needs of the real people that they represent, right? We may not agree on all of the politics, we may not agree on all of the policy, but I have to keep in mind that your whole purpose of being there, working these long hours for the pay that you get, is because you care about the constituents that you're representing and you're really trying to make a difference for them. So keeping that awareness is, you know, essentially keeping things in perspective, even during the most heated policy debate, right? And then essentially a part of my job is--the main requirement is to pay attention to the nuances of government, you know, and the people in the government, and you can't fake that, right? It's not what you necessarily see on television every day, right? That's the upfront, you know, constant barrage of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. There's a lot of nuance [in] those individuals, what they're working on, what they're passionate about, and how you're gonna play a role in all of that, and you really have to pay attention to that.
Zach: Expand a little bit about that. When you say, like, the upfront, like, what do you mean by that?
Nigel: Well, there's the stuff that you--that professionals report on, right? That's the high-level news that you see, but at any given time when I walk into an office, a member or a staffer is dealing with a number of different personal and professional issues. You have to look at a staffer--when I was on the House side I was working for a congressman from Maryland, Congressman Albert Wynn. My portfolio included environment, health care, education, transportation, small business, and telecommunications, and I was also the staffer for the Minority Business Task Force for the Congressional Black Caucus. Now, at any given time, I was dealing with issues from, you know, building roads on one side, and then that meeting would end, and I would quickly have to transfer over to satellite communication technology, right? That discussion--you have to keep in mind that these are human beings that are working long hours and that their minds are focused on all of these different things, so having that type of--that emotional intelligence for the challenge that they're facing every single day allows you to approach the conversation in a certain way so it's the most effective use of their time and yours and you can actually make a difference.
Zach: Nigel, you're a political relationship subject matter expert, so you know the difference between good and bad, quote unquote, politics, right? Can you give us some examples? And I kind of want to--I want to really take your insight and experience in Capitol Hill and talk about office politics a little bit, 'cause I know you've seen it. You've seen it all, right? 'Cause you don't just--you don't just live in Capitol Hill, you also have to go into the office, you have to--you know what I'm saying? Like, you flex between a variety of different environments, right? So can you give us some examples of, like, tacky office politics and things that all employees, but especially employees of color, should avoid?
Nigel: Okay. Well, there's an old adage in government relations and lobbying that "there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests." And instead of "enemies," "permanent opponents, only permanent interests." And you also have to keep in mind "What is your permanent interest, and does getting involved in petty office politics help your movement towards your interest, or is it creating unnecessary risk?" Right? The shorter version of that is "Keep your eyes on the prize." I would strongly recommend--my personal opinion is don't get involved with that, office politics, because the deck chairs are always gonna shift, right? The only consistent thing in life and in business is change, so there are always gonna be people spending a disproportionate amount of their time worrying about those types of things. I try my best to avoid it. I recommend that people try their best to avoid it. Maintain positive and, even more so, positive and strategic relationships, and focus on delivering your best every single day. You do that and then, you know, the other stuff will play itself out, and often times, you know, you're in a steady state, you will find that you will actually progress moving forward in a straight line, in a linear fashion, versus, you know, losing your focus and getting engaged in other things that aren't gonna help you.
Zach: So let's shift gears a little bit. You know, you serve on the board of directors of SCORE, a non-profit organization and national partner to the U.S. Small Business Administration dedicated to entrepreneur education and the formation, growth, and success of small business nationwide. What was your reason for engaging in this space? And at the board level, right? There's plenty of things that you could be doing, Nigel, with your time and with your various talents. What was it about this space that got your attention and your passion?
Nigel: Well, I have a long history with small business. As I mentioned before, you know, my dad ran his business out of our basement for years, right? So I've seen--I've got a number of family members that are entrepreneurs and small business owners, and so I've witnessed first-hand the impact small businesses have, not only on a household but on a community in general, right? The positive impact that that can have. I said before, when I was on the Hill, on the House side, the first time I was the staffer for the Minority Business Task Force for the Congressional Black Caucus. When I sent to the Senate to work for Senator Carey on the Senate Small Business Committee, you know, I was working on policy issues that would promote and advance the cause of small businesses and entrepreneurs, and SCORE was one of those organizations that I worked very closely with as a Hill staffer. And then when I got the opportunity to join the board I jumped at it. I mean, these organizations--this is an organization of 11,000 volunteers that are former executives. So these are retired corporate executives and former entrepreneurs themselves who are willing to share their wisdom FOR FREE. Let's say that again. FOR FREE.
Zach: For free.
Nigel: For free. So if anyone is listening, and you're running a business now or you're interested in starting a business and being an entrepreneur, I strongly encourage you to reach out to SCORE. [straight up sfx] I strongly encourage it. It is a wonderful opportunity. But at the board level, I think I get an opportunity to really provide strategic advice and guide the organization in a way that I can make a difference. The decisions I'm making now and the input that I'm providing now is gonna lead the organization into the future 10, 20 years from now, right? So what are they doing with regards to investments in the organization and building it out, and what are they doing with regards to reaching out to diverse communities and reaching out to the new generation of entrepreneurs, which may be your millennial-aged individuals. What does that mean? What does that mean for women and minorities who are disproportionately creating new businesses faster than other communities? Like, how are we serving all of those communities in such a way that it's really making a difference? And these guys are serving everyone from Mom and Pop sandwich shops all the way up to your innovative technology companies. So how can we help--how can I help play a role in that organization doing its best to reach all communities?
Zach: Well, that's incredible. You know, what I think is really powerful about you being in that position is, as we know, there are systemic and structural challenges that come with economic self-empowerment and advancement and really participating on these stages--and when I say we I mean, like, black and brown folks in these spaces--so you having that insight and giving your point of view in how--not just your point of view, but your strategic wisdom I believe is very much so invaluable, so that's powerful. Because a lot of this stuff, like, we don't really know--a lot of us don't really know where to start, right? It's not--it isn't, you know, your grandfather's space anymore, you know? It's more complex. There are different hurdles to jump and spaces to navigate. So that's really incredible. This has been an amazing conversation. Before we let you go--
Nigel: Thank you.
Zach: Yeah, nah. Hey, I appreciate you. Before we let you go, any parting words or shout-outs?
Nigel: Well, I just want to thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate the invitation, and I appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation. It's really made me think about, you know, the context of what I do and what--there are a number of others in the Washington, D.C. metro area that are making a real difference in the lives of individuals and really in what governments are doing and what industry is doing and what our overall community is doing. So I thank you for the platform. I really appreciate the invitation, and I look forward to having many more conversations.
Zach: I look forward to it too, Nigel. Man, look, we definitely consider you a friend of the show. We can't wait to have you back. Now, look, Nigel, I don't know how much of the Living Corporate podcast you've listened to, but every now and then we've got to drop some air horns, okay? So I gotta put 'em in here right... here. [air horns sfx]
Nigel: There we go.
Zach: I'm saying. I just got to it. And I hope it's not culturally insensitive. I recognize [you/your family are] from Jamaica. I love air horns.
Nigel: I love it.
Zach: All right, cool. [laughs]
Nigel: I love it. [laughs]
Zach: Well, all right. Nigel, 'til next time, we'll catch up, man. I appreciate you.
Nigel: Thank you very much. Have a great day.