As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Floyd.
Jessica Floyd joined American Bridge as President in March 2021, having most recently served as Managing Director of Campaigns at the Hub Project, where she oversaw numerous projects and campaigns related to the economy and democracy, including multi-year accountability efforts against Republicans in the House and Senate. Floyd has spent her career designing and managing issue advocacy and electoral campaigns at local, state, and national levels. Following several successful campaigns in New York and New Jersey, Floyd managed Congressman Ron Barber’s winning congressional campaign and served as Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ political director. During the 2014 and 2016 cycles, she worked Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Independent Expenditure in 2016 as its Deputy Director, where she helped to manage paid media programs in targeted districts around the country. She also has extensive experience in government; she managed government affairs in New York for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, served as district director for Rep. Ron Barber, and worked in the executive office for the New York governor. Floyd has a master’s in comparative government from the London School of Economics and was recently named one of the American Association of Political Consultants’ 40 under 40.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in New Mexico — my parents were health care providers who met on a Navajo reservation in Northern Arizona. So it was never really a question of whether or not I should go into public service; it was a given. My parents taught me that what you do with your life should be about serving the greater good.
My mom was a nurse practitioner who was very involved in politics, and she took me to volunteer on state legislative campaigns, where I fell in love with working in politics. In fact, one day, I got to meet Gloria Steinem and asked her to vote for me for president. I was enamored with what powerful women could do to change society for the better, which is what initially got me interested. After I graduated from college, I was accepted to a training program for EMILY’s List, and they sent me to work on the coordinated campaign in New Jersey. After that, I was hooked, and I have spent the rest of my career either in government or politics — trying to make each work as best as possible.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I would say the most interesting thing that has happened is the passage of the American Rescue Plan. For a decade, we have talked as Democrats and progressive leaders about how we show Americans the impact that all of these policies can have on them. And it has been a constant source of frustration that Republicans have been more trusted on the economy, even though history shows that Democrats are better stewards of it when we have control of the White House. In the last year, we have seen the fissures in our economy that were exacerbated by COVID but have always been here, like women taking on bigger burdens at home and in the workforce. I have never seen an agenda in my lifetime like the American Rescue Plan that actually tried to address the big picture of how we can get people to a place where they can thrive. The American Rescue plan addresses, holistically and systemically, so many of the ways a society and the richest country in the world still lets down the most vulnerable amongst us.
At American Bridge, we designed a program to help keep President Biden popular, talk about his success, push back against history and avoid the curse that midterm elections are often a bloodbath for the party in the White House. The passage of this legislation is a massive investment — and I believe one of the most critical pieces of legislation for women of my lifetime. It will cut child poverty in half, create good jobs, put thousands of dollars in peoples’ pockets, and help us safely reopen after a global pandemic. Women bore the brunt of this pandemic — particularly women of color — and the rescue plan gave a path out of the crisis that acknowledged that and was designed to support women and families. As Democrats, we never sold the Affordable Care Act — we never really connected how it improved people’s lives to Democratic leadership. But the Rescue plan can be different. It is an amazing gift to both the strategy and politics of the situation if American Bridge and our partners get it right and an important tool to address the challenges we face as a society.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think the funniest mistake I made was that I was once offered a job that came with housing, and I made the mistake of not asking for a description of that housing. I slept on an air mattress in an unfinished basement with ropes hanging from the ceiling to hang my clothes on. Every morning, I dressed for work in this unfinished basement.
Another mistake that had more of an impact on my career was that when I worked for Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, there was a woman going after her in a town hall in 2010, and I tried to step in and cut her off in the middle so Gabby could continue her stump speech. Gabby took me aside after and said the most important part of town halls is to speak to her constituents — no staffer should cut off a constituent voicing their concerns to their representatives. As a staffer, I was trying to protect my boss, but Gabby reminded me that day that we weren’t there for her — we were there, fundamentally, to help the people she represented, even if they disagreed with her.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
For me, it’s not just about having a single mentor. It’s about finding people you can rely on at every stage of your career for both support and constructive feedback to push yourself and do better. Over the course of my career, I would have answered this question with a different person each time. Of course, my parents instilled in me the fundamental values that pushed me into public service. I have also been lucky enough to have a boss in New York politics who saw something in me that gave me more and more to do, allowed me to push myself to feel empowered to be better every single day. And throughout my career, I have met dozens of women who have been my sounding board on all things, from having kids and how to balance work and parenthood to dealing with daily work crises.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I think one of the best parts about having kids and being a working mother is that you have to take a step back. Every Saturday, I take a hike with my kids, and being outside and seeing them discover the world is the best stress relief. Those moments also help me get ready for the next week.
Like so many women, I like being over-prepared. So I write things down and come back to them over the course of days. I think about it, step away from it, and come back to it. Whether that means making dinner and coming back to it later that night or trying to get a good night’s sleep before addressing it tomorrow. I also think that because I am a collaborative person, I like talking it through with people. If I’m in my own head, I’ll miss something and won’t be able to think through every angle. So if there’s something at work we need to make a big decision about, I talk it through with my team.
I also try to read as much as possible. I see reading as a way of preparing because, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it allows you to dive into other worlds and separate from the problems in front of you. I think that’s a healthy way of being able to come back and reset your perspective.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s a very simple answer: it’s both the right thing to do, and it makes the work better. There is no evidence that I have ever seen that doesn’t prove that. The more diverse the team and the more different types of diversity there are, the better the end product is. It’s just that simple.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I’ll start with one: so much of our work culture, whether it’s corporate or political, is not designed for non-white male leaders. Having different faces of leadership at the table changes that. I draw on my experience as a mother of young children in a business that has traditionally rewarded people who have been able to go out for happy hours or out-of-office bonding activities. What fostering that culture does is incentivizes women to either pretend they don’t have children or feel like they need to choose between having children and succeeding. I want my staff to feel like they can have it all — success, kids, a life outside of work. So I will talk about bath time. And doctor’s visits.
We must understand that changes inside companies matter. I know as a leader that I must show that I value boundaries that I’ve set to be a good mother and do good work while also pushing for policies that allow that to happen on a large scale — like paid family leave. As leaders, we have a responsibility to set a culture that we want to see in our own organizations and use that to push for larger-scale changes that impact more people. For a long time, progressive organizations would push for paid leave or higher wages and then internally treat our staff as if they were lucky to simply have a job. Paying interns, reasonable policies for families, and liveable wages are all simple and necessary things.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Fundamentally, I need to make sure that my team can get paid, that we have enough money in the bank for our programs, and a clear definition of what success looks like. I’ve built a team that I am so proud of — they are talented — and I think often the best thing I can do is give them the space to do their jobs. I strive to be a sounding board for them but fundamentally provide them with the freedom to do their work. I learn from them every day — and one of the most important roles I have is helping them use their unique strengths to accomplish our common goals as an organization. If I’ve done those things and can let other people have the freedom to do their job, understand what success looks like, and understand how they fit into the larger structure, I’ve done my job.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
You can be kind and successful. You can be a generous leader and a thoughtful leader, and also really impactful. Sometimes people assume that kindness and effective leadership are at odds. That’s never something I have found.
The other myth is that there is no room to be collaborative — that you have to be a decision-maker to retain control and respect. I find it to be the opposite. If I’m letting the people I’ve hired be more expert in their area than I am, that’s me doing my job.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
My guess is that many of my male counterparts don’t walk into meetings where people assume that their own staff is their boss. I have walked into multiple meetings where those I’m meeting with will extend their hand to my male staff members before me. I don’t look like their idea of the leader of an organization, so they automatically assume that I’m not.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think the most striking difference is that we’re still working from home. My number one priority is making sure my team is safe, and with the Delta variant spreading into more and more communities, that means continuing with our remote work policy. I hope that more people across the country get vaccinated so we can get this virus under control and head back to work. I’m excited by the idea of meeting with my team face-to-face and traveling to the places where our partners do their work.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Anyone is cut out to be an executive if they want to be an executive. Because they’re good at one job, a lot of people get promoted to the next level of management. But they never take a step back to ask themselves if they want to manage people, and managers never step back to see if that person would be a good fit as a manager. We do a disservice to the talent pipeline by not investing in management as a skill itself, and — to turn a common phrase on its head — we assume that because a man can fish, he can teach other men to fish, which isn’t always true.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Bring your whole self to work. Being honest and transparent allows the team to develop trust in you as a leader and gain insight from your team that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Of course, it takes a lot of confidence to be vulnerable, but you should get to the point where you realize that the most powerful thing you can say in a room is, “I don’t know, what do you think?” And ask questions all the time — you will only get better at your job if you ask questions.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I know I have hired people who will go on and be more successful than I ever will be, and I look forward to working for them one day! I love mentoring and bringing up people who are going to change the world. I have also elected people who will implement policies that will be life-changing for people I will never see, know, or meet. Politics is a means to the end — the end is helping the most people we can. Whether it’s in politics or in governing, the scale of what you’re able to accomplish is enormous, and the idea of putting leaders into office that actually care is something that will always be important.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Take a job because of who you get to work with and learn from, not necessarily the title you want to have. You’ll learn way more from good people and talented people than you will from a particular job description or title.
- Focus on learning how to be a manager — it’s not a natural skill, but a skill you have to build.
- Live your life on your terms rather than what you see in your industry. When I was coming up in the world, I didn’t see a lot of people who had kids and were doing these jobs. People didn’t talk about their kids so it felt hard to imagine being a parent and continuing to succeed. Some choices I have made, like getting married two months before an election as a campaign manager, made people think I was crazy. But life is too short to not make it all work — and no job is going to be the only place where you are fulfilled.
- It’s a small world, and you never know who you’re going to have to work with. Be really careful about burning bridges. You’re going to see them again.
- You’re never going to regret taking a vacation. There is never a time where you’ll look back and say “I wish I was working that week instead of being with my family.” Take the time that you get to live your life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a mom, my number one priority is making sure my kids are cared for and that I can give them the support they need. And as moms everywhere know, accomplishing that is extremely expensive. So if I could inspire a movement, it would be to make sure moms everywhere have access to quality, affordable child care that keeps their kids safe and make the expanded Child Tax Credit that President Biden signed into law permanent. Thanks to the President and the American Rescue Plan, the Child Tax Credit has already put thousands of dollars into parents’ pockets in the past month. That’s money to help them put food on the table, buy their growing kids new clothes, and pay their bills on time.
Every parent deserves the peace of mind knowing they can protect their families. I am glad that the President and Democrats in Congress have secured some much-needed support for them, and if I were to inspire a movement, it would be to expand on the work they have done this year.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandfather would always say, “my favorite day is Tax Day.” And he meant it. As a kid, he was a poor Polish, Jewish boy who ran away from home because his parents couldn’t afford to feed him. He grew up in an orphanage in Vienna and saw the writing on the wall when Hitler came to power. He saved his brother’s life by taking him to the U.S.
When the U.S. entered the war, my grandfather signed up for the Army and went back as part of a group called the Ritchie Boys to fight the Nazis. He fought in the war, including at D-Day plus 3, then came back and had a family in America. His favorite day was Tax Day because he genuinely loved paying his taxes to support the country that has given him and his family every opportunity to survive and thrive. It was a phrase that always reminded me how lucky I am and that we are all stewards of our country.