Business Lessons From Presidential Politics

Kevin Eikenberry

By: Kevin Eikenberry - Chief Potential Officer, The Kevin Eikenberry Group

Category: Leadership

The President of the United States is one of - if not the - most influential CEOs in the world. As the campaign cycle kicks into even higher gear, here are a few lessons all business leaders can learn from presidential politics.

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The most influential CEO in the world (George W. Bush) is facing mandatory retirement in 16 months and already there are 20 men and women vying for the job – very publicly. They are talking about how they will do things differently if they are chosen, and they are doing everything they can to prove how all the other candidates are wrong for the job.

When President Bush leaves office, many across the country will be thankful when the 24+ month campaign cycle has ended. But before you write this off to "just politics," there are lessons to be learned from all the political maneuvering.

Build enthusiasm early. In politics the next campaign cycle begins the day after the next person is elected (sometimes sooner). It can make for an incredibly long campaign, but it certainly builds momentum. Some of it may be misguided (see below), but you can’t deny the enthusiasm already evident for the campaign – especially among those on the teams for the candidates. What are you doing to build the enthusiasm for a pending change in your organization? The key to organizational change is communication – whether that’s changing the CEO or changing who covers the phones during lunch. You have to help people understand why making the change – whatever it is – will matter to them. Make it personal for your employees and they will make the change work.

Embrace technology and innovation. YouTube debates, podcasts, blogs … these candidates are embracing technology and tapping into new forms of communication like never before. They are taking creative risks, and they are connecting with a new generation of voters who don’t remember life without the Internet. What are you doing to bring Web 2.0 to your company? Does your leadership team have a blog? When’s the last time you rewarded creative achievements in your organization? Whether it’s internal or external communications, use the technology and the resources you have – and try something new. Take calculated risks. Encourage creativity. Remember, status quo requires no leadership.

Cultivate a farm team. There’s always someone waiting in the wings in politics – sometimes more publicly than others. But from the general public’s perspective, it does not often look like political parties cultivate their future leaders very well. There probably is a strategy behind who runs when and which candidate ultimately ends up in the race, but that’s not always very clear. To be most successful in business, you need to actively cultivate your future leaders. Organizational leadership development often means going to a seminar or two and waiting your turn. Taking that approach does not prepare your organization for long-term success. Have a succession plan and intentionally prepare for your company’s future.

Communicate the succession plan. Even if the political farm system is in place, there is no evidence to date that anyone is talking with the candidates about who has the most political strength right now, who’s best prepared for the job, who can win the election, or any other equivalent of succession planning. It looks like 20 individuals battling for the individual prize – above all else. To succeed in business, once you have your farm team built, you must communicate with those players regularly about their goals, the organization’s goals, what additional work each person needs to be doing to succeed, and so on. Each person in your organization – or at the very least every senior and middle manager – should be able to tell you what his or her next position will be – and what it won’t be. Communicating the organizational plan and connecting it to individual goals allows your people to see how they fit into the big picture, and helps you make sure your next senior executives have everything they need to succeed from the very beginning.

Focus competition in the right place. The political in-fighting is really gearing up right now. And when the primary season is in full swing Democrats will be laying into other Democrats while Republicans try to pummel the other Republicans. Of course it’s important for voters to hear the differences in each of the candidates. And of course winning the primaries is the only major-party ticket into the general election. Even so, all the time spent bashing the people within the party detracts from the overall goal of bringing the candidate’s party into office. It’s similar to when the sales people can’t get along with the marketing people or the customer service reps think the shipping department people can’t find their way home. Competition is healthy when it’s focused on achieving organizational or departmental goals rather than sub optimizing for the good of a group or department. Imagine the bottom line implications of everyone working together to achieve organizational goals; instead of trying to one-up other departments or individuals to achieve strictly personal or team success.

Presidential politics isn’t business, but these very public events can offer opportunities to learn and apply lessons to benefit your organization. As you watch and read over the next few months, think about more than just the sound bites. Think about the sound business principles you can emulate – or avoid – for the benefit of you and your organization.

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