by Adam Mendler, Creator & Host, Thirty Minute Mentors Originally published on Adammendler.com
I recently went one on one with Aaron Grau, Executive Director of Invest in the USA, the national, membership-based not-for-profit industry trade association for the EB-5 Regional Center Program. Aaron has worked with non-profits and trade associations for over twenty years. Aaron was initially lobbied by associations in the mid-1990’s as Majority Counsel on the US Senate Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. When he left Capitol Hill, Aaron’s experience on the hill led him to work with associations representing at-risk youth and the disability community, where he developed extensive experience managing associations and corralling grassroots support to advocate their causes. Aaron has since established, grown, and lobbied for several workforce and economic development trade associations.
Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Aaron: A lot of my career has been trial and error; learning from the errors and doing my best to do the things I enjoy. I graduated from law school in the early 90s and began practicing with a boutique law firm in Winter Park, Florida. Reflecting on what I enjoyed the most, I decided to leave practicing law and move to Washington, DC to work on Capitol Hill. With no prior experience working on “the Hill,” I decided to volunteer on a political campaign for a Congressional race and eventually worked my way up to Majority Counsel on the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where I developed Senate hearings and negotiated and drafted several pieces of federal legislation and learned the ins and outs of workforce development policy.
Years later, I was finally able to combine my experience working with associations, developing economic development policy, and the discipline I learned from law school, campaign work and the demands of being a Capitol Hill staffer, and opened an association management company dedicated to workforce and economic development. In that pursuit, I was lucky enough to find Invest in the USA (IIUSA).
Adam: Given your experience working with nonprofits and trade associations for over twenty years, what are the key characteristics of an effective lobbyist?
Aaron: Patience – that’s the big one. You also can’t be afraid to do the hard work. The type of non-profits with which I work with are not multi-million-dollar enterprises, we can’t peddle influence. You have to be able to commit to shoe leather days. You have to be able to make your case and most importantly, you have to be able to persuade others to help you make your case.
For example, Invest in the USA’s members are part of a community that helps immigrant investors come to the United States using the EB-5 visas. The investments these immigrants make are at least $900,000 each. IIUSA members also help pool that money and leverage it with other debt and equity to create enough capital to build everything from hospitals to grocery stores in rural and urban communities. It is a huge economic impact on communities and the money creates and save jobs. In fact, EB-5 immigrant investors must show they create or save at least 10 U.S. jobs, or they do not qualify for their green card.
To be an effective lobbyist for a group like IIUSA, a small to medium-sized non-profit organization, we need others who are impacted by what it does to help carry our message. And, in these economically distressed times, it makes sense to reach out to the hospitality industry, the health care industry, educators, municipalities, and economic development associations and ask them to say – “Hey, we need this! We need EB-5. We need its capital and economic development.” That message from those entities, means a lot more to policymakers than anything I can say or do.
Adam: What are the best lessons you have learned about leadership and relationship building from your years on and off the hill?
- Be humble. A leader is simply part of a team, you have a job to do the same as anyone else on the team. A quarterback can’t win a Superbowl by himself. (Not even Tom Brady can do that!)
- Be supportive. Give full credit for any win to your colleagues but take full responsibility for any loss without attribution.
- Be confident. Don’t be afraid of upsetting someone if your decision is thoughtful and reasoned. You can’t please everyone.
Adam: What do you believe are the defining qualities of an effective leader?
Aaron: Beyond being humble, supportive and confident, I believe a leader must have a passion for his or her undertakings. Leaders need to feel comfortable taking risks. I like the lyric from Rush’s song Freewill, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” Be smart, do your homework, take advice and take risks.
Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Practice delegating. Know that when you do, a project may not get done exactly the way you think it should, but by delegating the work you’ve given someone else a chance to learn something and both of you will be better for it the next time.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
- Do what you love – otherwise, what’s the point of leading the charge?
- Do your homework. You’re a leader, not a subject matter expert.
- Surround yourself with people who have different points of view and listen to those people.
Adam: What are your best tips on how to corral grassroots support for a cause?
- To corral grassroots support, you have to demonstrate that your cause is everyone’s cause. Again, I give you the example of IIUSA and its effort to reauthorize the EB-5 program around which its organized. Who among owners of a Teriyaki Madness franchise would believe that an obscure visa category means anything to them? Who among small town mayors or hotel chains? I’m a cement manufacturer, why do I care about EB-5? When these folks and the folks with whom they work and to whom they sell realize that EB-5 immigrant investors make it possible for small towns to construct buildings or open restaurants; to create jobs or to keep them at home, they become supporters.
- Make it easy to sign up:
Make the message simple and honest. EB-5 (this thing most people have never heard of) saves and creates jobs.
Make it free. No one has to pay or commit to anything other than their support of saving and creating jobs.
Make it simple. To show your support, all you have to do is click here.
- Keep your data accessible:
As you develop grassroots support, be sure you can call upon that strength quickly and easily.
Keep your numbers accurate and up to date.
Keep quotes and statements of support handy with permission to use them.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Aaron: The best piece of advice I ever received was from my dad. He sold life insurance; never an easy task because no one wants to buy something they can never use! He told me the key to selling a policy was knowing your audience and being able to speak to them in a way to which they can relate. Don’t fake it, he said. Don’t be someone you’re not or insincere but be aware of who you’re talking to and why. Simply put, it’s not what you say, but how you say it.