An Unconventional Path
Justin Harding’s story exemplifies that there remains no conventional route to a career as chief of staff.
Hailing from Cedar City, Utah, Justin spent much of his early life in the small farming community of Minersville. He attended Beaver High School and worked for his uncle’s floor covering business in nearby Cedar City, which he admitted was the “extent of [his] ambition” as a young man.
After graduating in 1993, Justin enrolled in college at Southern Utah University but quickly found the adjustment difficult. Deciding that he was unprepared for college, he took the opportunity to work as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Justin’s two years of service with the mission in western New York instilled in him a greater sense of purpose and an aptitude for diligence.
He returned to Southern Utah University equipped with more developed study habits and this time completed his degree. But Justin’s sights remained set on taking over his uncle’s business. In the summer of 1998, Justin met his wife, who pushed him to be more ambitious with his career direction.
When an opportunity arose to join Congressmen James V. Hansen’s (R-UT) office as an intern in the fall of 1999, Justin’s unconventional path to a career in public service began.
Entry into the Public Service
Recently married, Justin moved with his wife to Washington D.C in the spring of 1999. His role as an intern at Congressman Hansen’s office laid the foundation for a career in the public service, but it was also where he was first introduced to the role of a chief of staff.
Impressing as an intern, Justin was invited to return to work as a Legislative Assistant full-time. He worked closely with Nancee Blockinger, chief of staff to Congressman Hansen, whom he credits for taking a chance on him as an intern back in 1999.
Justin spoke of his admiration for Nancee, particularly her ability to act as the “master of his [Congressman Hansen’s] universe”, a respected principal and “the person who seemed to run the place.” While Justin revered Nancee’s effectiveness as a chief of staff, he admitted that it was not a position he ever aspired to hold.
After serving for two and a half years as a Legislative Assistant, Congressman Hansen’s retirement compelled Justin to move into a new role as Legislative Director to Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT), a position he would go on to hold for six years.
Becoming a Chief of Staff
After serving for six years in Congressmen Bishop’s office, Justin was presented with an opportunity to become chief of staff to the recently elected U.S. Representative to Utah, Jason Chaffetz. As a former chief of staff himself, Jason was aware of the skills and competencies required to be effective in the role.
He spoke of the importance of managing personalities and identifying those who would provide good counsel. Practically, he advised of the importance of building close stakeholder relationships, particularly with Utah’s state emergency managers.
After five and half productive years working for Representative Chaffetz, Justin accepted an offer to become chief of staff to Utah Governor Gary Herbert. Although he experienced significant professional development as a congressional chief of staff, life in a gubernatorial role was a new but exciting challenge.
Transition to the Governor’s Office
While his role as congressional chief of staff presented its own unique challenges, Justin recalled that it had a “predictable and natural rhythm.”
But he quickly realised that working for the governor’s office was a major change of environment. He noted that “the levers of power were very different,” the governor was not constrained by legislative powers.
However, the authority to exercise executive influence made for a much more fast-paced work environment. Justin went from helping to manage a small twenty-person team to holding responsibility for a twenty billion dollar, twenty-four thousand-person enterprise. But he was not deterred, describing the “truly astounding velocity of work” as “surprising but pleasant.”
When asked for his views on some of the most critical skills required of a chief of staff, Justin emphasised the importance of being able to manage crises competently and with leadership. He called this managing ‘The Fire Drill’; encompassing both the ability to proactively mitigate risk, but also to act swiftly in a crisis. Justin credits Jason Chaffetz for teaching him how to be calm, responsive and call on the right people in these critical situations.
Challenges and Achievements
During Justin’s 21-year career in public service, he faced many professional challenges. A career in politics produces many moments of frustration. But when we asked him about some of his most memorable moments as chief of staff, he described a career in which the achievements and accomplishments far outweighed the bureaucratic challenges and frustrations.
In 2015 after being appointed as chief of staff to Governor Herbert, the governor’s office worked together with a broad cross-section of stakeholders to pass the first state-level non-discrimination bill in the country. In only his first legislative session, Justin helped the governor facilitate a bill that protected the rights of the LGBTQ+ community while balancing the concerns of the faith-based community. “It was one of those remarkable moments when Utah stood out and was a leader,’ he said, and it is an achievement that still resonates with him today.
However, not all of his legislative accomplishments were achieved with such haste. Justin characterised his experience supporting the governor’s push to expand Medicaid to at-risk populations in Utah as a defining challenge of his career. The governor’s office was constantly stymied by the politicisation of the issue at the federal level and uncertainty in the judiciary. Such was the immensity of the challenge that Justin and the governor often turned to their faith for support – prayer helped them to remain focused and resolute in their efforts to help vulnerable members of their community. After years of fighting, the Utah State legislature would go on to pass a bill that closely replicated what the governor and his office had been pushing for years. It represents one of the most challenging and rewarding periods of his career.
Justin characterises the chief of staff role as one of the “most remarkable and enjoyable positions in the state government,” but noted that it is “designed to be time-limited”. For this reason, he implores any chief of staff to “enjoy every moment.”
Being a chief of staff is a rewarding, but demanding role, Justin says. As a loving husband and father of six children, he had to make daily sacrifices in his personal life. As a close confidant and advisor to the governor, he could be called upon to serve at any moment.
One afternoon he had taken his family for an afternoon at an amusement park, only to be called into action when a wildfire took hold in Southern Utah. Justin was tasked with quickly coordinating the state’s emergency response, describing his children’s elation at seeing him take off from the South Lawn of the Utah State Capitol in a Blackhawk as he joined the governor to survey the fire-affected area. While the role necessitates sacrifices, Justin’s children and family were and are immensely proud of his commitment and service to the people of Utah.
The conclusion of Governor Herbert’s third term in January has brought an end to Justin’s service, who at the time was the most senior gubernatorial chief of staff in the country. Justin is now concluding a transitional role as a Senior Advisor to the newly-elected Governor, Spencer J. Cox.
He is looking forward to his next venture as President of the Pennsylvania Philadelphia for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a man of great faith, he is excited about giving back to his faith community and joining his wife to lead over 200 young missionary volunteers across forty congregations in the region.
The Chief of Staff Association extends its deepest gratitude to Justin for taking the time to share his story with our growing community. We wish Justin and his family all the best in their future endeavours and are confident that his exceptional leadership will be of immense value in whatever capacity he chooses to apply it.