If you can’t seem to figure out a way to move up the ranks on the Hill, Rep. Bryan Steil has some sage advice: Ask, and ye shall receive.
Steil took a job as a lowly staff assistant in former Speaker Paul Ryan’s office after graduating from Georgetown University in 2003. Later that same year, he jumped straight to legislative assistant. With a November victory over Democrat Randy Bryce, Steil claimed his old boss’s former seat.
His key to success: Asking to chip in after-hours on projects beyond the scope of his current job title. It worked for him on the Hill, and it worked for him in the private sector.
The Wisconsin Republican spoke with Roll Call to wax philosophical on hard work, the advantages of going to school in Washington, and why he’s not Ryan 2.0.
Q: You leaped quickly from staff assistant to legislative aide when you worked for Ryan’s office, much more quickly than most staff assistants. What do you attribute that to?
A: One, the ability to intern in college. I learned the ropes probably on the early side. Going to Georgetown for undergrad, I got the opportunity to intern up on the Hill while I was in college as a freshman. Step two is hard work. I always try to focus in life in general on the areas that I control. What I control is how hard I work every day, the time I put into projects that are given to me. [As a staffer] I would dive in on work around the clock, nonstop, and then always try to take projects on that were a step beyond what my title currently allowed me to do. I did that in the hours after traditional working hours.Q: What was one of those projects you went out of your way to chip in on after-hours, that went beyond the scope of your staff assistant job title?
A: I worked on a budget process reform bill for Paul Ryan. That bill ultimately got voted on on the House floor while [Dennis] Hastert was speaker. The original co-sponsors for that were two freshman, one a guy named Jeb Hensarling, who obviously knew what he was doing, and the other was Chris Chocola.
If you look at the ability to be impactful at the staff level, there is just unlimited opportunity for those individuals who are willing to do the hard work. If you go back and if you ever look at that bill, not only was it lots of great members, but it was lots of great staffers that I had the opportunity to work with, one of which was Russell Vought, who is now the acting director of [the Office of Management and Budget]. He was the legislative director for Jeb Hensarling. You look at people who put their nose to the grindstone, get work done — that’s who is ultimately able to be impactful in a public policy context.Q: So one of the keys to getting ahead quickly in Washington is simply to ask for more work?
A: You get the assignments that are given to you done, and then you ask for additional work that is the work that you want to be doing [at position ahead of you]. Even if you’re the staff assistant — after you get through tour requests and you’ve got the mail completed — you want to start working on letter-writing because you want to assist the legislative correspondent because that maybe is your next step. Or if you’re a legislative correspondent and you’ve got your letters completed, instead of going home, you step up and say, “Now I want to work on a substantive policy issue,” and you start working as an LA [without the job title].
You have to execute and deliver on the tasks that are in front of you, but rarely have I ever met somebody who then, after you get that done, they aren’t willing to give you a project at the next level.
Q: You’ve rejected media characterizations that you’re “Paul Ryan 2.0,” arguing that you and every other member of Congress bring different backgrounds to the Hill. Can you elaborate on that?A: I look at my background, and I have spent a lot of time in higher education, serving on the University of Wisconsin’s board of regents, doing higher education policy work on a volunteer basis. I also worked in the manufacturing sector for 10 years — substantive, private-sector work.
My unique background is from the roots of southeast Wisconsin and working at businesses in southeast Wisconsin, from living in southeast Wisconsin in Janesville. That doesn’t mean I’m inherently better. It’s just unique. The benefit is that, when you think about the United States House of Representatives, we have 435 unique and different backgrounds and experiences. That richness of diverse experiences benefits us as we address the policy concerns before us.Q: You have a unique perspective on the necessary skill set for Hill staffers since you were one. What are qualities you’ve been looking for as you staff up your new office?
A: First and foremost is the character of the individual — integrity and a good work ethic. To me that is paramount. Then you shift to what I would call the hard skills. Communication is critical. That’s the ability to write, the ability to orally communicate, and the ability to read. All three of those communication skills are critically important for anyone, but in particular when working on some of the core policy issues that we face everyday.Watch: Paul Ryan’s farewell address, from mailroom intern to speaker