Interview with Blake Major
Describe your position. What’s your typical workday like?
I handle federal retirement and tax issues for AIG, a global insurance company. I don’t know that there’s a typical day, but a big part of my job is monitoring what’s going on in DC and translating that for our internal business executives. I work with internal and external stakeholders to advocate for the company’s interests on the Hill and with the administration.
What quality or skill do you think has been the greatest asset to your career?
I think to be a successful lobbyist you should be inquisitive in general and especially interested in policy. My job often involves diving deep into the weeds on complex policy issues, so you’re constantly learning new things. To me, that’s exciting and interesting. Beyond digesting policy, a lobbyist needs to be able to break down a policy position and communicate it effectively to a wide range of people. That’s a skill that I think takes time to master – I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a master at it at this point – but it’s essential to succeeding as a lobbyist. At its core, a lobbyist exercises the First Amendment right to petition the government. To do that effectively you have to know what you’re talking about and know how to talk about it in a way that achieves your goals.
Did you always have a clear idea of what you wanted to do for work and how you would get there?
I don’t think so. When I was in high school I paid attention to politics and I’m embarrassed to admit – although maybe in this town it isn’t so embarrassing – I watched a lot of CSPAN. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew I wanted to be in DC and I knew I wanted to influence the process but I didn’t know what that meant. I think a lot of people don’t know what that means. There are so many ways to influence the process both inside and outside of the Beltway. In DC, you can just focus on policy, working on the Hill or working for a trade association or think tank. You can work in communications; you can be an advocate, directly as a lobbyist or through grassroots or both. In every job I had, I took note of what my favorite parts of the job were and looked for ways to do more of that. I think if you do that in your 20s and 30s you have a good chance of waking up at 40 loving what you do.
If you could go back and change something about your career path, what would it be?
I regret never working on the Hill. I feel like I missed out on an experience and a great opportunity to be a public servant. I don’t think you need to have Hill experience to be a lobbyist – I obviously don’t – but I think you’re worse off for not doing it.
Do you have a career philosophy? Is it personal to you or do you think most people would benefit from considering it?
I said this earlier and I don’t know that I’m good at putting it into words, but I think it’s very important: Figure out what parts of your job you love to do, whether it’s answering phones and talking to people or summarizing hearings or giving tours. Sit down and think about what it is you love about it. Do you like answering phones because you like to help people? Do you enjoy watching hearings because you get to learn about new things or watch the legislative process? Try to understand what is at the core of those responsibilities and then think about what job would give you the opportunity to do more of that. I think it’s very easy in this town to take the wrong job because it’s open and you’re looking or because it pays more than you make now. That’s the quickest way to being unhappy with your career.
Do you have an advice for DC interns looking to snag a job?
DON’T GIVE UP. Network and follow up. Meet people when you’re networking and follow up with them. Ask them to sit down for coffee and ask them about what they do and if they have any advice for you. Jobs can open and close quickly in DC, and many of them are filled before they’re even posted. And the ones that are posted and still open can receive hundreds of resumes. You need to know the right people to help get your resume to the top of the pile.
What about junior staffers looking to do well at work and move up, what advice do you have for them?
It sounds obvious, but be good at your job. Do what’s asked of you and do it well and on time. Take the initiative and be proactive. Know how to spot opportunities even when they’re hiding.
Do you have any networking tips?
When I came to DC I was terrible at networking and I avoided it. That was a huge mistake. If that’s you, force yourself to network. It’s a skill that you can only learn by doing. Networking events are great because you’re all there to meet people. That’s your nexus right there. Walk up and introduce yourself. Ask them where they’re from or what they do for a living or what brings them to that event. I used to make a game of it. If I didn’t leave a networking event with at least two business cards I lost. Meet a couple people at a networking event and get their business cards. Write some notes on the card about what you talked about or something that will remind you how you met. Email them a day or two later and find some time to chat. Keep in touch with them. Connect on LinkedIn. DC is a remarkably small town. If you see a job posted that you think is the right fit, check your network for connections.
What’s something you think people should know before going into government relations?
I think some people don’t really understand how many different types of jobs you can do within government relations. From communications and PACs to grassroots and direct lobbying; and even within lobbying there’s corporate or trade or working for a firm. You don’t have to know where you want to be in ten years, but have an idea of what you think will satisfy the passion you have that brought you to DC in the first place.
You’ve never worked in government, which is pretty rare for someone in government relations. What made you successful despite that?
I leveraged connections I made through networking to help me get the interview. I applied for jobs even when in the back of my head I thought I wasn’t qualified or I wouldn’t hear back. You don’t have a limited amount of resumes that you can submit. That doesn’t mean you should waste time applying for a VP of government relations job when you just graduated, but if you only apply to jobs at your level you’re never going to grow.
I’m also not ashamed to admit that I got lucky. I was working for a trade association in membership after I graduated. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, but I was comfortable. I decided that I wanted to do government affairs and applied for an administrative assistant position at a small trade association. It was a step back in pay and level, but it turned out to be worth the sacrifice. I got the job and, after only a few months, the two other people above me in that department left the organization. When they hired a new director I was promoted. Sometimes you get lucky, but if you don’t create a situation where you can capitalize on it, you can miss out.
You’re a co-founder of the Government Affairs Industry Network (GAIN). What inspired you to create it and what have you learned from it?
We saw a void in the space after the Association for Government Relations Professionals (AGRP) closed shop. When we started GAIN, our founding principle was to be inclusive and accessible. To us, that means anyone can attend any event, whether they work for a huge corporation that can afford to cover professional development costs, or a small association that can’t. Our events are free or under $10 for that reason.
GAIN has been incredibly rewarding for me personally because I can see how it helps people succeed in this industry. GAIN offers professional development, educational programming, mentoring and networking opportunities and I think people have really responded the events we put together. Our “How to Make it in DC” series focuses on the DC job market. We don’t just talk about finding a job in government affairs, but also how to find the right job. How can you move up in your career? How do you build a career path that is both fulfilling and rewarding, and matches the passion for public service or making a difference that brought you to DC? We have our 2nd annual Career Workshop coming up on October 5th. This event brings together experienced government affairs professionals from all areas, as well as career guidance experts to help answer some of those questions. If you’re looking for a job, or even if you’re not but you want to know what might be the next step in your career, you should stop by this free event.