Interview with Congressman Will Hurd on Learning From a Campaign Mistake and the CIA
My guest for Episode #2 of the My Favorite Mistake podcast is not currently a business leader, but he is going back into the private sector in January 2021. He is Congressman Will Hurd, a Republican representing Texas’s 23rd Congressional District.
Hurd was student body president at Texas A&M University, he served as a CIA undercover operations officer including stints in the field in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. After working for a cybersecurity company, he was elected to the House in 2014.
Today, the Congressman talks about his “favorite mistake,” which includes his lessons learned from running and losing his first election in a runoff. We'll also hear about his experiences in the CIA and how they focus on training — and executing the mundane tasks perfectly — as a way to prevent bigger, catastrophic mistakes.
Update March 2022: Hurd is now the author of the book American Reboot: An Idealist's Guide to Getting Big Things Done.
You can listen to or watch the episode below. A transcript also follows lower on this page.
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Episode 2, Congressman Will Hurd.
Rep. Will Hurd:
This is a really fascinating, fascinating topic. I think we learn most from, from our mistakes.
I'm Mark Graban. This is My Favorite Mistake. In this podcast, you'll hear business leaders and other really interesting people talking about their favorite mistakes — because we all make mistakes, but what matters is learning from our mistakes instead of repeating them over and over again. So this is the place for honest reflection and conversation, personal growth and professional success. Visit our website at myfavoritemistakepodcast.com. Thanks for listening. And now on with the show, I'm really thrilled and honored to be joined today by Congressman Will Hurd. He's a Republican currently representing Texas's 23rd Congressional district.
A little bit about his background. He was student body president at Texas A&M university. He then served as a CIA undercover operations officer, which included stints in the field in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. He was elected in 2014 and then last year at the beginning of his third term, he announced he would not be running for reelection here in 2020. So Congressman thank you so much for being here today. How are you?
I'm great. It's a pleasure to be on this podcast and it may be short because I've never made a mistake in my life. No, I'm, I'm, I'm just playing. This is a, is a great concept and I appreciate the opportunity to come on.
It said on your campaign poster, “doesn't make mistakes?”
[Laughter] It should've been, it should've been, but no, it's, this is a really fascinating, fascinating topic. I think we learn most from, from our mistakes.
Yeah. Well, and so maybe it will let you jump right in, you know, as I asked different guests, I mean, thinking back, what would you consider to be your favorite mistake if you will?
I don't know if I was favorite because if I, you know, I learned from it, but if I would've known in advance, I wouldn't have done it. Right? And it involves my first run for Congress in 2009, it was the race that I lost. And to give some context to that, you know, I had never thought about running for office and, you know, I was in, in high school, I wanted to do computer science. I studied computer science at Texas A&M University. And my, my first year I'm walking across campus. And I see a sign that take two journalism classes in Mexico City for 425 bucks. I had 450 bucks in my bank account. So I go to Mexico, fell in love seeing another culture.
I thought it was cool. Seeing things only read about in books and added international stuides as a minor and I in that class I had the first class I took in international studies. I had this former CIA officer tell the most amazing stories and that began my interest in the CIA. And so when I graduated, I went in and I was the, in the back alleys at four o'clock in the morning in dangerous places, collecting intelligence on threats on the Homeland, I was stopping terrorist nuclear weapon proliferators, Russian spies. And in addition to doing all that, and in places like India and Pakistan and Afghanistan, I had to brief members of Congress. And I was pretty shocked by the caliber of our elected officials. And my mama said, you are the part of the problem or part of the solution. So I left a job that I liked and was really good at, moved back to my hometown, and ran for Congress.
Now I knew a guy who had run races all over the country. And what, what I thought was that the number of votes that I needed to get was almost less than the number of votes I got at Texas A& M when I was student body president. And the district at the time, I believe it was 21 counties or 23, 21 counties. Now it's 29 counties. It's huge, basically 825 miles of the border. We knew that the guy and this was going to be a runoff, there was five of us in a runoff in the Republican primary. And we were going to go on against trying to challenge an incumbent. And the person that the, the leader of the pack in the Republican primary was a guy who had ran in that seat before.
Now, nobody thought, this was a 71% Latino district, nobody thought a black dude let alone a black Republican would be able to win in a 71% Latino district. But we said, Hey, if we crush the vote, count in all these other counties in Bexar County was San Antonio is the largest. So we did it. And the first round everybody was shocked. They're like, how did this guy come out of nowhere basically? And when the first round I won that first round by about 900 votes, but I lost the runoff election. Neither one of us got 50% of the vote. So it went to a runoff. I lost that runoff election because I made a strategic and a tactical error.
The strategic error that I made was that I viewed the runoff, the runoff election as a continuation of the first election. It's completely different. It's a unique entity, which requires unique tactics, techniques, and procedures, and a different strategy. I thought I saw it as a continuation. That was the strategic error. Then the tactical error I made is because I'm a classically trained engineer, I looked at all of the precincts. You know, counties are broken up into precincts and you can get the analysis of how many people voted for you or your opponent precinct by precinct. I went and said, let's try to reduce the delta in the precincts that we lost.
And if we reduce that delta, we're going to have more people come out to vote for us. That was a tactical error. And it was my decision to do that. What we should have done was a, the way you win a runoff election, the way you win any election: ID your voters and turn them out. We did not do that in a runoff. And we ultimately lost in by 700 votes. Now, what did that, what did I learn from that? No, I didn't. I thought I wasn't gonna run again. Cause the guy who beat me went on to be the incumbent and I thought he was gonna be an office for 10 years, but that told me that when I ran again in 2014, my entire organization was built around identifying our voters and turning them out to vote.
Right. And so we've never not done that. And now my internal data is generally within half a percentage points of the final outcome of all my elections. And so, so it, it, it, it I'll be honest. It sucks. Right. I felt like I let a lot of people down. I didn't know what my plan B was going to be after I lost, but those were two things that I went.
So for one, thank you for sharing that, that story. And now it sounds like those, those lessons are clear. When did that become clear? I imagine like on election day and the days thereafter, like what, when did you figure out then what had happened so that you could learn from it?
Well, when, you know, here's what I love about, about elections. There's a clear winner and there's a clear loser and there's finality, right? And it sucks being on the, on the, on the, on the, on the downside of that finality. However, after, after a few days, my team and I, we looked at, we went and did analysis county by county, precinct by precinct and the level of effort we spent in those areas where we were trying to reduce that delta, we did not see the significant change based on the outcome. And then when you compare turnout levels of the places we won in that first election versus the, those same precincts in the second election, you saw a dip, right?
So, so it was clear that the folks I had voted for me the first time we didn't get them out to the polls. And here's what generally happens in elections, the person in second place, when it goes into a runoff, if, especially if it's tight, if it's within a 12, 15 points, the second person, second place, it's like 75% of the time wins the runoff because when you, when you take your foot off the gas, right. And so that was another lesson. So, so it was probably a few days after. And, and, and part of it was the, the professional, what I call the professional political class, the people that run races, they were advocating that we, we try to, we try to do it this this other way, but I was the one that,
Yeah. Well, and the second thing I took note of in your story was the way that you took responsibility for that decision as the candidate, we see a lot of times in organizations where there's finger pointing or blaming, and you know, it might've been easy for you to tell that story in a way or some other candidate, or might have thrown the consultant you used under the bus instead of admitting and taking responsibility for those. So I appreciate that.
My, my name's on the, my name's on the flyer and my face is on the commercial. Right. And, and when I run commercials, I got to say, I approve this message, right? And, and so I, I take responsibility for those and had I gotten bad data, then I could have said, Hey, there was some execution that was wrong, but it was my responsibility for developing the strategy. And, and so, but it's also my responsibility to implement that strategy in that, in that next, in that next round. And to ensure that everybody within the organization, that there's an alignment of the values to what the strategy is. And, and so this is something know, I, I think you probably talk more to business leaders, then you probably do politicians on, on these kinds of chats, but you know, this, this, this can translate into other issues.
Right. You know, I was on a panel once with the digital director for “The Rock,” Dwayne Johnson. And this was when the movie Moana had just come out. And she had said, if Moana fails at the box office, are you going to blame the, the, the movie goers? Are you going to say, it's a crummy movie? Now I think Monoa is a fantastic movie. And, and, but at that moment, if it would have failed, you would have said it was a crummy movie, but politics is the only place where if somebody does come out to vote, you blame the voters for not voting rather than saying, are you offering a product that people want to come out and in essence purchase or use. And so that's why it goes back and that's connected to this, identify your voter, right?
Just like a business will be identify your customer, identify the person who you want to be. Do you think should be consuming your, your good or service and go after them. And so I've also tried to take that philosophy and the politics. And because usually in politics, you just look at historical voters like who have voted, who is a likely voter. Well, there were more people that don't vote then do vote, and that's an opportunity, but you've got to give them something that they want.
Yeah. Well, that's a good point. I mean, I've talked to entrepreneurs who have fallen into the trap of talking to people about, would you buy this product, go out. And then that doesn't translate from a likely buyer into people actually voting with their wallet. And
So you need that Minimum V iable Product that you can get out in front of people so they can purchase it and, and use it. And when people are buying that, then Hey, add on additional bells and whistles. And so those same principles and theories translates into politics. And, and, and, and that's something that we've tried doing, why we've been successful electorally.
Now, I I'd be curious how candidates run and lose and their first selection and then never run again because they get discouraged. They feel rejected. Like how much from your perspective did that understanding of feeling like, Oh, a keyword errors that I made, that these could be corrected and lead to a successful campaign as, as turned out.
So, so what what's funny, I don't know the raw numbers, but when I was first running, nobody expected me to win, but they all said, Oh, you gotta run a few times before you're successful. Most successful candidates. Most people that have electoral success have, have won, have run and lost before. I think it's probably more rare that you win on your, your first round then going to a second. And my district is, is, is not unique in that. And so I'm going, you know, you kinda, you bet, but you can't have that in the back of your head when you're running right. You're running because you think he could win and you have a strategy to be able to win. And, and when you get that close 700 votes and you can identify the things that you did poorly or did wrong, and you can find out a way to fix that.
You know that, and then if your team, the people you need to pull this off is willing to try one more time. That's why we ended up doing it again. And now the difference is the environment was a little bit different. The issues were different. However, structurally, and how we built the organization, we weren't going to make the same mistake. And it looked very different than, than it had in my 2014 organization looks very different than it did in 2010.
Yeah. I think it's interesting. You mentioned you used the phrase Minimum Viable Product, which comes from the Lean Startup methodology. And so much of that methodology is about rapid learning cycles of learning cycles of iteration, you know, A/B testing, different messaging. I imagine there are candidates who have tried to apply that approach instead of coming up with the perfect messaging upfront. Somehow I imagine there's a lot of testing and feedback and iteration that occurs during a campaign cycle.
So, so most so I'm, I'm I use the term MVP cause I've actually done a course and won a contest at a startup. This was after I ran for, I ran for Congress the first time in between my, my, between that and the ‘ 14 cycle. And so I tried to bring some of those philosophies now, the differences in con and when you're running for office. And I think the people that have been successful, you got to articulate what are you for? Okay. Now that what you are for may resonate a little bit different in one community to the next, but the same fundamental issue is there. How I may explain my background, right?
As a former undercover officer in the CIA, you may, you may, you may test that to see what's what's right. And, and so, so the, the official title when I was in the CIA was I was an operations officer and the national clandestine service when you test that, nobody knows what that means. Right? And so that's how we came to say undercover officer, because people understand what that means now. And it describes what it is, but that was technically not my official title. And so you do those kinds of things to make sure that you, that you're resonating, but you don't, you can't completely change the message.
I think people in this, in the, you know, in the eighties, tried to do that, you would say one different thing in a primary, a different thing in the general election. Guess what? In the age of social media and everybody recording stuff, you can't do it on, by the way, that's what people hate. Right? They hate people that are wishy washy.
Yeah. And I think there are important Lean Startup lessons where the company is grounded in certain principles. And within those boundaries, you know, there can be minor pivots, which is different than, you know, what might be called flip-flopping and in other circles.
Sure. And in Congress, so you have your official office, right. Then you have the campaign office. And so we knew in the most competitive seat in the entire country that almost going to always have tough reelections. And we knew that in the next two years, that what we had to do in the official office in order to get the chance to run again. And that's why it was for me, you know, the, the, the promise that I made when I was running the first time is based on something I'd heard throughout the district, people never saw their member of Congress. It was big loving County is the second least populated County in the United States, in America, 95 people in the entire County.
Right. And so they never saw their member of Congress. And so I made a commitment that you're going to see me. You may not always agree with me, but you're going to see me. And so, so that was our kind of our brand promise when, when we were on the first time. So then when we won, we had to execute on that and make sure that we delivered. And so that's why the two governing philosophies in my office have been a leader on national security. That's how people know me. That's what I know. That's what my passion is. And number two, be the gold standard and constituent relations. We're going to solve problems for you, whether you voted for me or not. And so those were the two governing philosophies that we knew.
If we could execute, then we had a story to tell in the next election so that people were, you know, were able, and then those folks that were, you know, ID my loaders, we can ID more people based on the things that we were able to execute when we, when we were in office anyways, I'm getting into the weeds here, Mark, but this is how, this is how we, how we kind of have been successful.
Well, it sounds like there are parallels between what we might call the voice of the customer in the business world and the voice of the voter you were getting that feedback knew what they wanted. They wanted to say, I assume them saying, we never see our Congress person meant they wanted to see them.
Yeah, exactly. And, and, and, and, and ultimately showing up is, is literally like 70% and listening and hearing these concerns. Oh, and guess what, whether, you know, it's a community in San Antonio where all the San Antonio Spurs live, or a colonia in the western part of my district where people don't have sewage, you know, some of the issues are ultimately the same and people want a roof on the head food on the table and the people they love being healthy and happy. And when you talk about those things and you show that you can do deliver on those areas, then people actually don't care. What little letter is after your name, as long as you're helping their community.
And, and I think that's, that's the same, whether it's delivering a product or a service. Yeah.
So maybe one last question that I'd really like to ask and you understand you might need, or want to answer in generalities, but, you know, I'm curious from your time in the CIA, it seems like in that environment, mistakes could certain certainly be deadly for yourself or for others. So I'm curious what in the CIA training or mindset helps evaluate, you know, the, you know, you know, trying to avoid deadly mistakes while learning from let's say smaller mistakes.
It's the training. The CIA is a high reliance organization where the, the, you know, a mistake has catastrophic action, you know, results, right? Someone's like if you're a firefighter and, and so the way they, they, they, they, we, we ensure we understand that is through our training. And what makes the CIA unique and special is we do the mundane things, the basics, p erfect every time, right? It is. If you can't do the basics well, you can't do the big things. And so whether it's something like doing a surveillance detection route, if you're going to meet a, someone who's giving you secrets, you've got to make sure that you don't have surveillance.
And this is, you know, it's a, it's laborious, it's time consuming, but you do it with the same level of intensity. Every single time you prepare for those meetings with the same level. And so the mundane things are taken as serious as the serious things. And you, and that's drilled into you in, in, in training. And you realize and understand that when you're, when you're out in the field and your leadership communicates that. So, so, you know, as a first floor officer, I had a senior officer that put his arm around me and, and help train me almost in a, you know, a apprentice / m aster craftsman type relationship.
Then you had a, an operation. She, then you had your cheapest station and everybody drilled in and would ask the question about those mundane, basic things, because that's what keeps you safe. That's what protects other assets. And so, so for me, and even in my organization, now, something as simple as answering the phone, when a constituent calls, a lot of times, they may be angry. A lot of times it may be on an issue you don't know, but that is the most important interaction that we have with the constituents. And so that has to be done perfectly every single time. And making sure that trainee goes in to do that is, is, is there.
Yeah. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing, you know, not only perspectives from the campaigns, but from some of the mindset in the CIA. So again, our guest here today has been Congressman Will Hurd representing Texas's 23rd congressional district. Thank you. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts with us here, Mark. I appreciate the opportunity.
This was fun. I'm looking forward to listening to your, the other folks you interview.
Thank you. Thanks for listening. I hope this podcast inspires you to pause and think about your own favorite mistake and how learning from mistakes shapes you personally and professionally. If you're a leader, what can you do to create a culture where it's safe for colleagues to talk openly about mistakes in the spirit of learning, please subscribe, rate, and review the podcast. Our website is myfavoritemistakepodcast.com. See you next time.