There’s good news for Biden appointees eyeing the exits: Unlike your predecessors from Donald Trump’s chaotic administration, you’re in demand in the private sector.
While the 46th president has presided over comparatively little turnover in his two up-and-down years in office, this month’s announcement that White House chief of staff Ron Klain would depart seemed to sound the starting gun on the period when insiders naturally start contemplating life on the outside. And though the scramble is only just starting, the prospects are much better than most people might have expected in the crisis environment of 2020.
How good? According to Lyles Carr, senior vice president at the McCormick Group, the largest independent executive-search firm based in Washington, the money can dwarf not just federal salaries, but also the sorts of salaries private-sector hirees were making 20 or 30 years ago. “If you’re the general counsel of the SEC, and you’re willing to go to a law firm, five million bucks,” he says by way of hypothetical. “Same thing with the general counsel or the deputy secretary of Treasury.”
Though it varies wildly by industry and subject of expertise, he says someone looking to maximize earned income (meaning, typically, a job in law or lobbying, since corporations tend to give a large chunk of compensation via equity) would be “certainly looking at the high six figures, low seven figures for the most relevant senior officials.”
That’s quite a change from the situation a couple years ago, when several Trump administration cabinet secretaries and other bigwigs had trouble landing high-end post-government jobs and activists talked about organizing to render other administration insiders unhireable. At the time, at least some people wondered if America’s political warfare was ending the bipartisan tradition of cashing in on government experience.
It turns out that once you remove the headlines about racism, the keystone-cops spectacles, and the constant public outrage, the revolving door will still spin just fine, thank you. The reasons for the rebound range from the prosaic (a lot of Biden appointees had lengthy Washington CVs even before signing on) to the historic (they don’t have to answer for things like an insurrection, which have a way of turning off PR-conscious employers).
But Biden veterans pondering a shot at the corporate job market can also credit their good fortune to some of the things the administration did that may have rankled prospective employers in the for-profit world: Regulatory pushes around things like antitrust or green technology can create bewildering new rules. Who better to help firms navigate opportunities and pitfalls than the folks who dreamed up the rules in the first place?
D.C. headhunters jokingly refer to this period of an administration as “government draft season” — the period when a team has been in place long enough for appointees to accrue meaningful credentials, but not so long that would-be departers could be accused of abandoning the cause as it gears up for reelection. Like NCAA standouts getting ready to go pro, they start putting together their bureaucratic sizzle reels just as employers start fantasizing about what new star could get them to the next level.
Curious about the state of this odd, venerable Beltway dance, I decided to call Carr, one of government draft season’s best-regarded Jerry Maguires — a 47-year veteran of the Washington cottage industry of connecting private-sector businesses with the folks who’ve been drawing paychecks from Uncle Sam.
Over the years, Carr has worked with cabinet secretaries and high-level career people from across government — and, naturally, with the law firms and corporate HR operations and board-of-directors search committees that might engage them. (The firms, not the candidates, typically pay headhunters, which is one reason folks in the industry tend to be hesitant when it comes to dropping specific names.)
Business, Carr says, is good.
“People coming out of this administration and the Hill are desirable again,” Carr says. A lot of them had better resumes in the first place, and the administration’s success at passing major legislation has added some luster. “There are quality people, and they’ll come back to the private sector now.”
This might be a departure from the last group, but it’s not particularly new — companies look to assemble bipartisan teams, hedge against the future, and navigate tricky agencies. What does change from era to era is just which sorts of government expertise are in highest demand. People with experience at Treasury or the SEC are perpetually in demand. Given the news of the past few years, it’s no surprise that healthcare experts are also going to be sought after.
And then there are areas that have been a particular subject of action in the administration, like antitrust or green technology. “Areas like transportation are swinging back to a level of importance — not paramount, but looking at the problems of the airlines, for instance, someone coming out of the FAA or the Department of Transportation is going to have options,” Carr tells me. “Same in areas like environment. This goes back to the regulatory aggressiveness of the administration in areas like environment and natural resources.”
“A current example is, international business regulation is high on the administration’s list. Think about things like export controls and anti-boycott,” newly prominent due to the sweeping sanctions against Russia. “So if you’re an international company or looking to work globally, particularly in the technology space, you now have all kinds of issues related to export control. Areas that were relevant prior to Ukraine are now front and center.”
It’s not all about the bureaucratic equivalent of bulldog prosecutors hanging out a shingle and taking on mobsters as clients. “It’s also to find where the money is,” Carr says. “So the infrastructure bill passed. The money for that is starting to flow. How do you tap into that?”
Washington, of course, has changed a great deal since Carr first got into the game in the 1970s — a much wealthier city, with a much more baroque industry of consultants and experts. Carr says the size of a raise a top official can expect on leaving government has gone up significantly over the years. But he says it’s less a function of government veterans being in higher demand (they’ve always been sought after) than a function of wage inflation at the top end of corporate America. Big shots who have zero government experience and get hired at companies or law firms in Dallas or Chicago are also getting paid a lot better than their counterparts were in the 1970s or 1980s.
If the resilience of the fed-to-corporate pipeline is a good sign for the capital’s troubled economy, what is it for the country? Just when you feel relieved about having a government full of folks that someone wants to hire, you remember that the perception of coziness between regulator and regulated is one reason anti-Washington politics has consumed America.
What’s interesting about being a Washington headhunter, though, is that so much of the task can be about creating a job for someone, rather than filling an existing one — a process that can feel exhilaratingly creative to mid- and late-career types contemplating a jump out of government. Carr winds up in the middle of these conversations since officials often can’t be talking to companies about jobs — but can, in theory, blue-sky with consultants about the kind of work that would make them happy. Companies, he says, are less interested in someone who can make trains run on time than someone who can tell them where to lay track.
“We’re the only people I think, who take people on and represent them as if we’re their personal agent,” he says. “When we’re on that side of the equation, probably 85 percent of the time, they go into a position that was created for them or restructured to fit.”
One story he tells involves a senior official who worked on anti-money laundering efforts — an area that generated a degree of angst in the banking world. As they talked about possibilities, the official mentioned out of the blue that a number of auto dealerships had gotten in money-laundering trouble due to bad guys buying cars with dubiously procured cash. Carr worked the phones and it turned out that this was news to a lot of executives in Detroit. The official wound up creating a niche advising carmakers on how to not inadvertently violate money laundering laws.
Cabinet members may bank on their name recognition securing them a coveted board slot or CEO offer. But this represents a kind of fantasy for the bureaucratic everyman or everywoman — the realization that your narrow expertise can be a productive business.
“It’s like being a doctor at a cocktail party, right?” says Carr. “A lot of people want to talk to you. It’s, ‘What should I do when I grow up?’ ‘What could I do that would make me more fulfilled?’”