The Primitive Podcast: Tom Sell
Posted by Kade Wilcox | April 12, 2021
When you think about politics, you think about a lot of things.
A lot of people.
A lot of opinions.
A lot of chaos, clashing, and fill-in-the-blank.
But for Tom Sell, partner at Combest, Sell & Associates, there are a lot of surefire lessons about leadership we can learn from government and politics, especially within the context of what is both done, and not done, right.
Hear more from this grassroots advocate now on The Primitive Podcast.
Connect with the folks behind the episode: Tom Sell and Kade Wilcox
Kade Wilcox: Hey guys, Kade Wilcox here, host of The Primitive Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning into this week's episode. Today we're joined by Tom Sell of Combest, Sell & Associates. Tom's just a really great guy, really genuine, and has over 20 years of experience in all levels of the national government who really advocates for some ag associations and really represents a lot of rural communities. And so I really enjoyed having him on today and listening to his perspective of leadership and what that looks like in the context of his work. So again, thanks for tuning in. Enjoy today's episode.
Tom Sell: I think an important aspect of leadership is just being stubborn at the right time, being beholden to a set of principles that drive you, studying and being knowledgeable, and really working to assess all the facts and all the factors that are weighing in on a particular topic, and then standing your ground and being stubborn. Being inviting and willing to work with and talk with and talk through the issues with anyone, but ultimately that kind of willingness to stand your ground, I think, is one of the key aspects of leadership.
Kade Wilcox: Tom, thanks for joining The Primitive Podcast. It's really cool to have you here. Thanks for your time. Excited to kind of get your insight and perspective on leadership.
Tom Sell: All right. Pleased to do it with ya, Kade.
Who is Tom Sell?
Kade Wilcox: Let's roll. So for those who don't know Tom Sell, tell us about you, about your background, and about the work you do now. Just an overview of, yeah, what you do.
Tom Sell: Alright, yeah. Tom Sell. I'm a, let's see, fifth-generation West Texan. Love this region of the world. I went to Texas Tech University, studied ag economics. I went out to Washington, D.C. right after undergrad, and participated in this messy environment, this crucible of ideas called the US Congress. I was a staff for the former Congressman Larry Combest from this area who preceded Randy Neugebauer, who preceded Jodey Arrington, of course. Combest was the third representative of that 19th district — George Mahon, Kent Hance, Larry Combest, and then — we've had a great legacy. And now it's the fifth-generation.
Kade Wilcox: That's not very many, that's not very many people.
Tom Sell: No. Yeah, it's pretty remarkable.
Kade Wilcox: Wow. I didn't realize that.
Tom Sell: But really a powerful group when you look at the footprint of guys like Mahon, for sure, Hance and Combest. There's a lot to live up to there so godspeed, Jodey. So I worked for Congress for multiple years, did work in the agriculture committee, really grew to love this kind of esoteric and unique area of public policy.
Tom Sell: It's something that, that affects each of us, really three times a day in the food that we eat. One of the most fundamental, you know, purposes of a government is to provide security for its people and supply resources and facilitate the best use of those resources. So agricultural policy has been part of our nation's fabric since our very beginning. And of course, we in the United States based on the kind of strong private property rights, we're going to invest in people to invest in the land and grow our culture from there. And so we've had a lot of different directions, and ag policy touches a lot of things from international trade to environmental policy. So it's always a very active and interesting area that affects every American. So it's an area of policy that I was fortunate as a young man to be able to specialize in with Larry Combest.
And then after moving back, going to law school, we were scared by just how much we loved the culture and our friends in Washington, D.C. We always, Kyla and I, always thought we wanted to raise our family here. So at a point, we did kind of pick up roots, moved back, went to law school here, thought I'd hang a shingle and be a country lawyer, but then just kind of got sucked into, pulled back into, the policy debates in Washington, D.C. So we have the firm Combest, Sell & Associates. We've been operating in the lobbying and public advocacy realm in Washington, D.C. since 2005.
Fundamental Changes in Politics Over the Years
Kade Wilcox: Okay. Wow. So not too far from 20 years now. So without, I guess, getting too policy "wonka shore," you know, into the details, how much (or not how much because I'm sure it's changed a lot) but what are some things that you've noticed over the last 15 to 20 years? You know, you kind of started in, in Congress and you know, now you're doing what you're doing, what are some of the fundamental changes that you've seen over the course of time in the way that maybe Congress operates and the way that things work in, kind of, that realm?
Tom Sell: Yeah, that's a great question, Kade, and there's a lot of hand-wringing on the subject, generally. You know, this kind of feeling of, “Are we losing something in our body politic?” And I, you know, I came in at the, at the beginning of what was called the, kind of, the Contract with America Era, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took control of the US House of Representatives for the first time in 42 years. And they'd been in the wilderness for that amount of time. And a lot of people kind of blame a lot of the bad movements, so the negative movement of the US Congress, on that Contract with America timeframe and Newt Gingrich, and going to the more compressed schedules. One of the narratives that you'll hear often is that, "Oh, members of Congress don't spend any time around one another as families and as family units anymore."
And so they lose, they lose some of that relational aspect that allows them to compromise and come across the aisle and create better policy. I'm sure there's some truth to that, but from my experience, Kade, you know, Washington still runs on good people trying to pursue good ideas in winsome ways. You know this from your work. You're all about communication and, you know, the field of play changes constantly, but there are always those who find a way to make it work, who find a way in the current environment to get their ideas across and push the envelope in positive ways. And that's still the case in Washington, D.C. It's certainly changed, but I'm a big defender and proponent of this very messy system that we have in the US Congress.
It's not designed to be slick or efficient by any means. It's designed to clash, allow for this clash of ideas. There are certainly some things I'd do differently. I'd love to see the committees restored with more power or given more power to really kind of hash through the details. But the fact is a lot of people don't like that hashing through, they just want kind of a clean path from point A to point B. So it always has been a mess. It continues to be a mess. But we're still blessed to live in the greatest nation in the history of the world.
“Why does it feel so much different?”
Kade Wilcox: I agree with that. I'm going to ask one more question, then we'll get to leadership stuff. Now I'm just, you know, I'm just fascinated by this stuff. And maybe some of our listeners, even those who are not inclined to engage in politics, find it interesting. But why does it feel so much different? But it's like when I listened to you talk about it and, you know, others that I know, like our mutual friend, Barry Brown, it sounds like it's kind of been consistent, you know, as long as y'all have been engaged with it. But why does it feel so much worse? Is it because of the rhetoric? Is it because of maybe the news media? Like why, why does it feel so much different now than it did even 10 to 15 years ago?
Tom Sell: Yeah, well, you know, they always say the best friend of the good old days is an incomplete memory. You know, it's never as good at the moment as it is in the rearview mirror. We've had messy politics ever since, ever since I can remember. But I will say this, we do tend to live in a constant hype machine these days where you have a vast number of media outlets that are competing for our eyes and ears and likes and impressions. And so they tend to hype up every little story. And that's just not the way the real world works, right? It doesn't work that way in our friendships and our relationships. And that's also true of Congress. Just because you disagree with someone doesn't mean they're evil. And so we have in the media, and the public media, we tend to just over sensationalize everything. And I think that goes a lot to the reason why it feels so, so bad right now.
Kade Wilcox: I'm always really encouraged when I talk to you cause I'm like, you know, I probably lean into that hype too much. And so it makes it feel chaotic. It makes it feel lost. It makes it feel, you know, impossible to recover. And so when I hear guys like you, who I respect, talk about how there's really been a level of this for a long time, it kind of gives me a bit of comfort thinking, "Okay, well, we'll see through this really unique season that it feels like we're in."
Tom Sell: Kade, that's why you're kind of cool and fun to be around and always exciting. That's why I'm kind of a fuddy-duddy right? I kind of minimize everything and yeah, we've been through this before.
Kade Wilcox: I should be more like you. My heart rate would probably go down substantially.
Tom Sell: You keep things exciting.
Leading Through Advocacy (and Managing Conflict)
Kade Wilcox: Let's talk about leadership. So, like, you have a unique role of advocacy and partnering with people to make things happen. So when you think about leadership in your own context and your role in your organization and working, you know, with the stakeholders that you work with, like, what is your role as a leader? Like, what is it that you're, you're bringing to the table as a leader?
Tom Sell: Yeah. So, professionally, we represent a lot of grassroots organizations that are one, trying to be educated on the issues so that they can pick the right battles. And, and a lot of what we do is provide, you know, try and provide wisdom and counsel into the issues that are important to them. And, and yeah, just help them pick the right battles. I think an important aspect of leadership is just being stubborn at the right time, you know, being beholden to a set of principles that drive you. So, and you have that Kade. I have that. Studying and being knowledgeable, and really working to assess all the facts and all the factors that are, that are weighing in on a particular topic. And then, you know, standing your ground and being stubborn — being inviting and willing to work with and talk with, and talk through the issues with anyone — but ultimately that kind of willingness to stand your ground, I think is one of the key aspects of leadership. And one of the things that have made our firm, you know? I think we're attractive and we've been very successful through the years, just because I think people see those qualities in us. They're looking for guidance. They're looking for leadership on the subjects. They're looking for someone who can help harness the power of a grassroots organization and that collective thought and yeah, I love the work and we've been fortunate at it.
Kade Wilcox: That's really good. What do you do, like, how do you manage conflict, you know? Like when you talk about standing your ground, choosing when to be stubborn, understanding your principles, you know, helping people kind of navigate these decisions that they're making. Like, what's been your approach to handling conflict.
Tom Sell: That's a great question. I genuinely like it, and I don't get offended, and I think that helps people see that. And so they tend to follow our lead in dealing with it that way. So I think the answer is we lean right into it. So if it's obvious that, you know, let's say we’re working for an association with a board that has a division within it about the best direction to take. We just really try to lean in and get those, get those issues on the table and debated and teed up in a constructive way so that both sides can fully articulate their concerns, or wishes, or desires. And the other side can hear that. And genuinely when you have that kind of very sincere and honest dialogue, it's respectable from both sides.
We just try and, you know, take the temperature down, but provide the forum to allow it to be discussed. We do that in our little associations. And then that filters all the way up into a place like the US Congress, where, theoretically, they're supposed to be doing the same thing. It is a little skewed because they tend to play to the cameras more. So it is, I think you need a safe space to do that where it's, there's not a feeling that the conflict is just that the opposite side is gonna run off and kind of line up their battle lines against it. It's the idea that you are actually going to try to hash these things out in a safe space and environment.
Kade Wilcox: When you lean into conflict, do you find that it tends, you just mentioned, like lower the temperature? So is that probably the thing you see the most? That it, it kind of softens the edge of both sides and creates a conversation instead of everyone being in their silos, heart rates are going up. Temperature is starting to boil. Edges are getting really sharp. I mean, is that kind of what you've seen?
Tom Sell: That's exactly what I see. And, and it is a process that I just absolutely love. There's nothing more gratifying in my work than when we have some potential conflict and can kind of nip that in the bud or, or just get the two sides to see one another's point of view. Because a lot of times when you see another point of view, it helps moderate your views in a way that would be more — a better place to end up. So it breeds that middle ground, which is important.
Kade Wilcox: That's good. In your opinion, why do people on an individual level, and group levels, and organizations, why do you think they tend to do the opposite of leaning in? You know, like, we're kind of naturally prone to, you know, avoid conflict, avoid disagreement, kind of be in our echo chambers. Why do you think that is? Like, why do you think we tend to avoid conflict?
The Risk of Not Leaning Into Conflict
Tom Sell: Yeah, it's a good question. You know, I think we do, it's natural to want to be with people that are, you know, just like you, or will reaffirm your ideas and thoughts. But, and while that's natural, I don't think it's necessarily the healthiest. You know, we even deal with this at my church, Kade. I mean we want to be a church that resembles the body of Christ and all of its diversity and mix. And we want to, you know, rather than holding people off into, okay, this is going to be the old person Sunday school class, and that’ll be the young progressive, skinny jean-type wearing type people like yourself. Nah, I'm just kidding.
Kade Wilcox: Oh c'mon!
Tom Sell: Yeah, we try and mix it all together to have that, you know, we learn from one another's diversity and different perspectives. It's harder to do. It's not as natural. But it, it really does bear a lot of fruit. So I don't think I answered your question.
Kade Wilcox: No, that's good. I think one thing I hear you saying is that it's a kind of a takeaway for me, it's like, it's really hard to address conflict with someone you don't know, you don't have a relationship with. You know you don't feel like you have common ground. And I, you know, if you really trust someone and you really know them, it's not easy to have conflict, but it is easier. And when you're really separated and you're siloed, and you don't know their family, or you don't know their interests, or you don't know their background, or you don't know their story, then you're, you tend to be driven by fear of how someone's going to respond. And so you can see that maybe, you know, in some of our culture and some of the things that get heightened around politics is we tend to fear the things we don't know. And so maybe that, that could lend itself to being afraid of conflict. I don't know.
Tom Sell: I think that's a great point, Kade. And I think when you have people bound together with kind of a common mission or purpose, where you can at least trust one another enough to know that you're generally trying to get to the same place or the same direction. It's easy to think about, like in a church context, or it's easy to think about in a grassroots association where we're collectivized, you know, toward a mission. You'd like to see it work better in places like the US Congress, where theoretically they take an oath of office which in essence, I'll butcher it if I try and state it, but it's about protecting the Constitution and the principles and the ideas of the United States of America. Now there are vastly different ways on how you get there.
And sometimes party politics have skewed this to where they're really, are they fighting for the party, or are they fighting for the country?
Kade Wilcox: Or sound bites.
Tom Sell: But boy, if we could create more — soundbites, absolutely — but if we could create more of a culture where, of trust, where look we can, we know we have different points of view, but we know we're both trying to honor and promote the legacy of this great nation, pass it onto those who come after us better than it was passed on to us. If we could be united in that purpose, it would melt away a lot of the disagreements and at least allow for better civil discourse.
Kade Wilcox: It's fascinating you say that because you could, you know, one could think about that at a level of the national government, which is very large and complex and feels really distant. But if, even if you boil that down to a really small business or a small organization, like Primitive, like, the more aligned we are around a common goal, the more we're going to trust each other, the more we're going to be empathetic and understanding when maybe we get crossways. When you're further removed away from a common goal, it creates an environment for, for unhealthy conflict. And so it's really, really good insight.
“I can't look back and think of a lot of failures.”
When you think about your last 15 to 20 years, you know, as a leader at different levels, you know, in your organization, when you worked in the federal government, how have you tried to view and handle failure?
Tom Sell: Hmmm. I try and avoid it at all costs. Yeah. None of us like failure, but I think a lot of that is just having a long-range view. So if, you know, if the goal is to, you know, act honorably, work hard, maintain your ethics and credibility, it makes the little battles on a day-to-day basis just smaller. I don't have all my pride wrapped up in whether I win this particular thing or not. My pride, my self, kind of, identity, and worth are tied up in something far greater. And so I don't know if that really gets to your question, but it's the way, certainly, I've always tried to do things. I just, you know, honestly I can't look back and, and think of a lot of failures. There's probably a lot of things I would've done differently, but I think just not making too much out of the small battles on our day-to-day basis and concentrating on the bigger principles.
Kade Wilcox: I've never thought of it in that way. When you talk about having a long-term view. Like, when you have a short-term view, every failure feels like, you know, a major failure, because you're only looking, you know, so far. But when you look at it a long view, it can change the perspective and the way that you feel failure, or the way you allow it to, you know, shape how you make that next move. So, yeah, I like that. I've never, never thought of it in that perspective.
In Constant Pursuit of Education
How do you approach your own personal growth? You know, you're, I assume, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I mean, you're dealing with a Congressman and Congresswoman and people, you know, at least publicly from a public view have the most amount of authority and power and influence, and they're in the public square. And so, you know, you have those stakeholders, then you have the groups you're advocating for, and you have people in rural communities, and then you have your own staff, you have your family. So like how do you take all of that and approach your own personal growth and staying inspired in your own leadership?
Tom Sell: Yeah, man, that's a good question. I don't, I probably don't have the best methods on this, but I genuinely you know, I love education. I love the idea of personal growth. I love the idea of learning from other people by personal interaction. You know, seeing and being a part of their life and their journey and their walk-in ways that, you know, we kind of rub and learn from one another. You know we do, certainly, in our firm and with my employees, we place a lot of emphasis upon, you know, reading, researching, thinking deeply, having a well-rounded spiritual life, and personal life, and setting aside time to, you know, for that, for that kind of personal growth; pursuing hobbies and pastimes that are actually going to deepen your perspective and, provide balance in the life. So I think all those aspects are really important. We certainly approach everything as we're lifetime learners. We also try and promote just a very humble way of looking at things. We're always here to learn. We can always do better and need to do better. And so I think all those things were not a very clear answer.
Moving at Breakneck Speed
Kade Wilcox: No, it's good. When you, some things you just said were really interesting to me, like reading and thinking deeply. Like, how do you, how do you create that space? You know, 'cause everything is moving at breakneck speed. You know, like our work is moving fast, the size moving fast, culture is moving fast. Our kids are growing up way too fast. Marriages move fast. Like everything seems to be really fast. So then when you say something like, you know, reading and thinking deeply, like, how do you create the space for that?
Tom Sell: It's hard. It feels particularly hard right now. I'm worn out right now. But I think for us, and really in my career, Kade, it's, it's just been the early mornings. It's been the break of dawn and just set aside. And it's just hard to do it at other times because I tend to be not very selfish with my time. I love to give it to others. And, you know, by eight o'clock in the morning, there is no shortage of people wanting pieces of that time. So I've just had to develop a habit and a process for getting up early, having that kind of personal time, spiritual time, and then just reading the knowledge of the world, which is particularly important in the work I do in the world of politics.
Being able to assess and think about what are the driving forces behind this particular piece of news or that, you know. Reading the op-eds, really trying to cultivate our own opinions and careful, deliberate thought processes on the various issues that affect our clients and beyond. I mean, we have our world of ag policy, but think about it. Those who work for us, and it's a great crew of people, we're all kind of built in this way of, we want to make the world a better place. I think that's what attracted us to politics and to public policy. We don't think, our minds aren't set so much upon what mouse trap can I build to better the world today? That's a great business mindset. Our minds tend to go more on, how do we set a fair set of rules that are going to allow the most people to achieve the greatest in our nation and culture. So we're very just policy-oriented, the way that we think. And so reading the news, getting a good sense of the world, you know, and that kind of critical thought is as important to that work.
Personal Gauges, Triggers, and Self-Assessment
Kade Wilcox: Yeah. That's good. What are the gauges that help you understand that you're tired, or that you're not your best self, or whatever? Like, for example, I find myself getting irritable and impatient (like more so than I already am impatient) or my energy starts to get really low, or I find myself complaining a lot. And those are, like, those are triggers. Like I'm not eating well enough. I'm not sleeping well enough. I'm not exercising enough. I'm not creating space enough. What are those triggers for you when you think about your own personal health?
Tom Sell: Yeah. Yeah, I'm not good at self-assessment. So I rely a lot upon people that are around me. Most importantly, my wife, Kyla. Oh, she's so good. She will, she'll straighten me out. And even my work colleagues. You know, it's, you know, conflict is a natural part of our work, you know, this kind of clash of ideas. And sometimes it gets out of hand and it just causes you to kind of step back and think, "Wow, I may be, you know, too tired or not balanced in the way that I'm approaching things." So I think taking a lot of cues from other people that are around us.
“What a foolish young kid…”
Kade Wilcox: Yeah, really leaning into other people. It's good. If you could, this is always my favorite question, personally, but like, if you could go back 20, 25 years ago and speak to your younger self based on what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?
Tom Sell: I don't like that question. No, I'm just kidding. You know, one — this isn't gonna be the answer you want — but one thing I love looking back at my, you know, 25-years-ago self was, you know, the naivete really served me well. You know, I didn't know better in a lot of instances than to just kind of launch into his particular issue. And I'm sure at that time when I was 22, 23, a lot of the, you know, seasoned war horses in Washington, D.C. thought, "Man, what a foolish young kid who thinks he can do this or that." And I really do think that that just kind of that bold naivete and, kind of, foolish optimism, in a sense that, you know, if look, if I'm doing right, you know, people are gonna respect that and they'll give me the time, and we can work through the issues and it'll be great.
And it was all very Pollyannaish and good. And that's honestly one of the things that even I tell my young staff. Just jump in there and give it a try. And if you do that with the right attitude, you know, it's never going to go bad on you. So I do, here 25 years later, there are certain battles I just don't, I don't take because I probably know better at this point. And I wish I had some of that naivete from 25 years ago. It's the opposite of the question you asked. There are things, certainly...Well, I don't know. I, when I bring on a young staff, something like that, I spend a lot of time just trying to really encourage them in thinking high ideas and pursuing those good goals.
Bonus Round: Fatherhood and Marriage
Kade Wilcox: That's good. This is a bonus question. The time I've known you, which is fairly short, I've observed that, or at least I feel like, you're a really good dad. I've met your sons a couple of times. It just feels like you're a really good dad. So like, what have you tried to do, you know, as you parent, to be good at that, you know? I mean, I can tell your sons respect you, you know? They're with you. So, like, what have you done as a parent to really focus on them?
Tom Sell: Man, this is a deep topic. And I think if there's one kind of common thread to both Kyla's and my parenting, it's one that we love one another first and we're about promoting one another with our kids. So one of the worst things I think of having with kids is when the parents pit the kids against the other. So Kyla's and my being in lockstep is key. You know, I travel a lot and I have throughout their childhood, but I think I've always wanted our kids to feel like they were my number one priority. Even though I am working hard and putting a lot of hours in, and in a lot of cases neglecting certain things or not being able to be at events that I would have loved to have been at. But even though that's the case, my hope and my prayer through all those years have been that they would believe that if it really came down to it, that I would drop everything to come and take care of what they need.
And I think just that mentality in a kid is healthy. They need to know that their parents have their back. And then I like the old school manners and that kind of stuff, too.
Kade Wilcox: No, they're good at it. Yeah, no, that's good. I struggle sometimes to know the balance. I want my kids to know what you just said so, so bad. Sometimes I wonder if we don't try too hard to get them to know that they're like the most important thing to us. And so I wish there was a formula that said, “Here's a perfect balance,” because I don't, we as parents, don't want to overdo it, where they feel like they're the center of the world. Because they're not. There are a lot of things more important than all of us, namely others. And so I find it difficult to balance wanting them to know, like, they're our most prized possession, but they're not, you know? It's like, you see what I'm saying? I wish there was a simple formula to it. So just trust the Lord that, you know, you're doing the best you can and leave the rest up to Him.
Tom Sell: Yea, indeed. And staying on your knees, praying and being humble, and being honest with them, too. You know, it's, you know, my upbringing was great. We had a great family life. But there was, there was definitely more fear,you know, for me as a kid then what I think I've tried to instill with my kiddos. There's a healthy, there's probably a healthy fear and respect there, too, but we try and just be very familiar and talk through the issues. And there are a lot of challenging issues for kids growing up in this environment right now. So we've just tried to be very open about that. And we're grateful. They're great kids.
Kade Wilcox: Thanks for all your time today. It's really fun to spend some time with you and kind of get your insight on some of this stuff. We really appreciate you being so honest and for being willing to be on the podcast.
Tom Sell: Yeah. Love it, Kade. Thanks for all you do for this, for this region. You talk about leadership. You put yourself out there in a big way and are doing great things for this region, and culture, and your church, and all the things that you're involved in. So it's a pleasure to be with you today.
Kade Wilcox: Thanks, man.