Ann Marie Habershaw on working on things that matter

Ann Marie Habershaw is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Bully Pulpit Interactive, an advertising agency based in Washington, DC.  Her career began in accounting before shifting into politics and government. Habershaw served as the Chief of Staff and Director of External Affairs at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and previously, served as the COO of Obama for America, where she built nationwide infrastructure to align with the national campaign re-election plan. Steadfast, levelheaded and collaborative, Ann Marie thrives on bringing good people together to do their best work.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Everything! I was a big daydreamer and a huge reader in my teen years. Whether it was a lawyer, a doctor or running for office, I probably considered it!

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
Given what I know now, I'd really like to be stuck with my maternal grandmother and my dad. They were such amazing influences on my life. I would love the opportunity to talk through with them all that's happened in the 15 - 20 years since they've been gone.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
On the business side: Good to Great by Jim Collins. I am constantly quoting and recommending it to people. Its focus is on how to get the right people on your team. There is nothing more important than that.

I love to read biographies and autobiographies. Personal History by Katharine Graham is a favorite. She was the publisher of The Washington Post for many years during the 70's and 80's. It’s about taking on things that people don't think you can do and conquering your fears in new situations.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I aim to go to bed by 10pm, and aim to get up at 5:30am. I generally end up at 11pm and 6am, but get close.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
When I think about my career, I think about it in different buckets. I graduated from school many years ago with a degree in Accounting. I believed it was a solid skill that could help me no matter what I did. I initially worked as an accountant for a few years and then got involved in politics and political campaigns. The thing that attracted me to politics was the impact you could have on peoples' lives if you elected good people. I was able to take my financial business background and use that in campaign organization. I did that for many years, going from campaign to campaign organization, such as EMILY's List and the Democratic Party committees.

The pinnacle on the campaign side was to be the COO of the President Obama’s re-election committee. It was the ultimate business and it took the top financial and organizational skills to be able to pull something off where you start from zero and you have to end at zero, over a very short period of time.

Working on the President’s re-election campaign was incredibly intense. It was non-stop, seven days a week. It was exciting but also demanding and stressful. The amazing thing about campaigns is there's a common goal and your common goal is to elect your candidate. With the re-election of President Obama, it was very easy to translate what that meant to everybody. Keeping an eye on the prize in terms of the end goal and the impact that person has had, and will continue to have, is an incredible motivator.

I had a team of about 90 and I recruited a lot of people from the private sector to come into the Obama campaign because I needed people who understood budgeting and finance and all different sets of skills that are prominent in the business space. Many of them had never done a campaign before, and I would say to them all the same thing: “At the end of this you may say, ‘I never want to do this again’ or ‘Sign me up. I want to do this again.’ But you will absolutely never say you regretted doing it, because it is an experience unlike any other.”

After the successful re-election campaign, I transitioned into government and then back into the private sector where I am today at Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI). What interested me about this opportunity was to be in a place where teamwork, innovation and figuring out how to really change peoples' minds on different topics permeated throughout the business.

My career has been interesting in that I have been able to take the same kind of business skills, financial understanding and talent development and parlay that across three different areas: campaigns, government, and business.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
The biggest obstacle for many people, and myself included, is overcoming fear. The fear of taking a risk or doing something that is out of your comfort zone. For me, and for so many, we often get in our own way. Pushing myself to new limits to try different things is really what has got me to where I am today. I certainly try to encourage others by saying, "You cannot let fear stop you from doing something that you know in your heart and your head is the right move."

What motivates you?
A couple things motivate me. One, I was raised in a family where we were told to show up every day and you do your best whether you liked the job or not. You show up and you get it done, because that says something about who you are. I am definitely driven by doing great work.

From another perspective, I want to combine great work with impacting peoples' lives. In every role that I have had I feel that I'm impacting the lives of other people. That is a powerful motivator, and it helps me fight through every day.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
That's a hard one. Some days I think I wish I'd known my value sooner. But I don't think you know that when you begin. I think you have to test yourself and have successes. More importantly, you have to have failures to really be able to know much of anything. I think if anything had been different in my life, I wouldn't be the person I am.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I've been lucky to be a part of so many amazing things. From a personal perspective, I grew up in a relatively small town, and I struck out on my own and created this life that is different from others and different to what might have been expected of me at the time.

Professionally, I’m proud of being able to take a national campaign like the President's re-election campaign that had 5,000 people in 900 offices around the country and make everything work every day. I didn't really understand what a big deal that was while I was doing it. It was one I looked back on and said, "Wow, that was a lot to manage and lead in such a short period of time."

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Perseverance. You cannot lapse. You can't let things get you down, whether it's not getting a job you wanted or things not going a certain way. The key for me in getting to where I am today goes back to hard work, showing up and persevering. I always looked ahead and moved forward.

What is your life motto?
This has changed as I have gotten older and what drives me now is not to waste a single minute. There's a lot I want to do, there's a lot I want to accomplish, and I don't want to waste one minute of one day on things that don't matter.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t let your first thoughts on a topic be known before you open your mouth. In other words, you've got to have a little bit more of a poker face. I was given that advice many years ago, and it still rings true.

The other piece of advice that I was given was, whatever offer you get from an employer, always go back and ask for more.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?

Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors. She spent her career at GM and took over as the first women CEO of a major car company and within two weeks, she faced a major crisis. The way she handled that has been impressive and I look forward to continuing to follow her.   Head on, not shying away from a challenge.

I also admire Warren Buffet. Not because of the wealth he has built up, but how he has approached his investments. He’s a solid character and full of integrity. The fact he’s not changed significantly over the years says he stays true to who he is.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
You can never get comfortable. You can't play it safe. In a world that moves as fast as ours, you have to be willing to take risks, and you have to be sure you don't ever become irrelevant. You almost have to always be thinking about what's on the horizon, and how you’re going to translate what you bring to the table to what is on the horizon.

This is one of the reasons I'm here at BPI. This is a company that's only six years old. It’s a start up, but is always on the cutting edge. I'm valuable here because of what I bring to it with my experience of leading organizations, particularly organizations that move rapidly. I push people all the time to not get comfortable, because once you get comfortable and play it safe, to me, that's the beginning of the end.

What are your favorite personality traits in the workplace?
There are probably groups of people I admire more than others. I particularly appreciate anybody who understands that every individual brings a different perspective and a different style.  The people who are successful and the people I watch, are the ones that say, "This person is different from be, but I'm going to figure out what makes them tick, because I've got to figure out how to get them from point A to point B."

Managing and leading people is one of the greatest challenges that everybody has, regardless of the sector. If you can really begin to look at people and say, "What are their strengths? Why do I want them on my team? How do I speak to them in a way that makes sense for them?" I think that is the ultimate key.

What’s your favorite TED talk?
Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

What's next?
I’ve been at BPI for five months. This is where I want to be and this is what's next.

It’s exciting because I'm learning the advertising business from this seat as opposed to the seat of a client, and helping grow this business in a way that continues to deliver the quality work to the client. As companies grow, often the biggest challenge is maintaining culture, so I’m working hard on that.


As told to Caroline Hugall over the phone on Wednesday 10th February 2016.