While in talks with Chris Christie about becoming the governor-elect’s chief of staff two years ago, Richard Bagger downloaded a job description from the website of the National Governors Association.
The document lists the many hats a chief of staff must wear — including chief strategist, crisis coordinator and headhunter. At the end is a section titled “Balancing the Many Roles,” which cautions that the duties of the position can “exhaust any mortal soul.”
“The thing about the chief of staff job is you’re on call all the time,” said Bagger, who leaves the governor’s office this week to become vice president of corporate affairs and strategic market access at Summit-based Celgene Corp.
Bagger, 51, said his 10-hour workdays in Trenton were similar to what he’s worked in the private sector. The difference, he said, is the intensity and rapid-fire pace of being the governor’s right-hand man.
“Sometimes it feels like a job you can do standing up,” he said, “literally, standing up, directing traffic.”
The transition back to the private sector is a natural one for Bagger, whose lengthy résumé is packed with experience in the public and private sectors. He was elected to the town council in his hometown of Westfield as a first-year law student, was the town’s mayor by age 30 and later spent a decade in the state Assembly before his election to the state Senate.
On the private-sector side, he worked for the Newark law firm McCarter & English; was assistant general counsel at Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey; and then spent 17 years at Pfizer Inc., rising to senior vice president before taking the Christie job.
Bagger “embodies many of the qualities that a person like Governor Christie seeks to bring into government,” said William J. Palatucci, a Christie adviser and longtime friend of Bagger. He’s “somebody with a real-world view of government from the inside and the outside, so he can be an impact player, and so he knows how to make the system work.”
Bagger’s ability to leap between business and government is no accident.
“Someone early on gave me some good advice — former Speaker Chuck Hardwick — who told me that each (sector) would make me better at the other,” Bagger said.
His early jump into local politics taught him the basics of leadership, he said, such as how to run a meeting and how to make sure everyone feels heard, even if the final decision doesn’t go their way.
Jon F. Hanson, who worked with Bagger as chair of Christie’s commission on sports and gaming, said Bagger was a skilled go-between for the commission and Christie.
“He’s a good listener,” said Hanson, chairman of The Hampshire Cos., in Morristown. “I look at him as very good at developing strategy, and further, I look at him as someone who represented the governor’s interests first and foremost.”
Bagger said his work alongside Christie taught him the importance of being an effective communicator, and setting out clear and consistent priorities.
That experience “will be something that makes me a much stronger leader,” Bagger said. “That’s what executive leaders do: they make decisions. And that’s something that Governor Christie is very good at.”
Bagger said he also saw Christie prioritize the value of building a solid team.
“He really has a talent for building and leading high-functioning teams with the right combinations of backgrounds, and getting people with a really good interpersonal dynamic — but who can have a debate and push back on one another and reach a better outcome through the debate,” he said.
Bagger said he managed to balance a personal life with the demands of being a chief of staff, even though “I do have a bad tendency to stay in touch” while out of the office.
When it came to his governor’s office employees, Bagger said he tried to shield them from the urge to stay in touch. He did use weekends to catch up on memos and to draft e-mails, but he said he was careful not to hit “send” unless the matter was urgent. E-mailing staff on weekends, he said, “creates a culture where people are expecting it, and feeling like they need to respond on a weekend.”
Instead, he saved the drafts to be sent first thing Monday morning.
“I assume that’s less stressful than over the weekend,” he said. “It gets them hitting the ground running on Monday morning.”
In his new role at Celgene, Bagger will be in charge of public affairs and government relations. He’ll also work with insurers to ensure the company’s hematology and oncology products are covered.
Bagger said he’s looking forward to his return to the corporate world.
“What I’ve always liked about being at a company is you’re part of an organization that has a single mission, an integrated plan — and everything you do is directed towards meeting the mission of that organization and accomplishing that plan,” Bagger said.
Dean Paranicas, president and CEO of the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey, said Bagger is widely respected for his commitment to the industry, including a stint chairing HINJ’s board.
“He’s one of those rare individuals who has a keen grasp not only of the issues pertaining to our industry in New Jersey, but also to national issues and global issues,” Paranicas said.
As for his reputation during the Christie administration, Bagger said he likes to think he set up an office notable for its discipline.
“When people have said that the Christie administration has been a very disciplined administration, I take that as a very high compliment,” he said.
In a world of high pressure and high politics, Bagger said the job of the governor’s staff is to proactively execute the governor’s agenda without getting distracted.
“I’ve said to folks in our office — if for 365 days you flawlessly deal with everything happening in the environment that surrounds us, and deal successfully with any one of the hundreds of things that could derail your efforts — but that’s all you do — at the end of the year, you’ve actually accomplished nothing.”
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