What Can Today’s CEO Learn from the 2016 U.S. Presidential Race?
For those following the 2016 American Presidential Campaign, it’s been like a daily trip to a cross between an amusement park and a horror movie. One minute, the candidates take the electorate on a speeding rollercoaster with huge dips and sweeping turns; the next, they are leading voters through a house of horrors. The result is that with election day looming in just seven months, the American public seems confused, fearful, and unsure if either major party has a leader worthy of their support.
One political insider, Steve Schmidt, who has been an advisor for two major campaigns in the past 12 years, told The New York Times recently, “There is no analogous election in the modern era where the two top candidates for the nomination are as divisive and weak. There is no precedent for it.”
So, what can today’s business leaders learn from these two stumbling political leaders? Here are three lessons:
- Learn to harness the power that comes from the experiences they create.
- Never forget the importance of clear, consistent, and thoughtful communication with members of their organizations.
- Recognize that trust within an organization is a precious commodity and to treat it as such.
1) Purposefully Create Positive Experiences
Any candidate working to clinch their respective party’s nomination for President faces a daunting task: win the general election. Add to this another hill for today’s candidates: despite facing an electorate where the majority rate both unfavorably. In fact, if both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump go on to win their party nominations, it would be the first time in 25 years that the majority of American voters held a negative opinion of both Republican and Democratic candidates at the same time.
The reason for this phenomenon can largely be traced to the experiences both candidates have created for the electorate. Examples are abundant. Mr. Trump’s recent comments about border control and foreign policy, or Secretary Clinton’s handling of issues like Benghazi or the use of private email servers have created experiences for Americans that have now shaped beliefs that are powerfully set and may be hard to change.
Business leaders can do the same thing if they aren’t careful. One of the most important aspects of an organization’s culture are the collective beliefs held by employees—and those beliefs are always shaped by the experiences that occur, and the most powerful experiences are almost always created by the organization’s top leader.
One such experience was created by Richard King, a former Chief Commercial Officer for Kos Pharmaceuticals. As the company grew in size and success, it became harder and harder for King and the other leaders at the organization to connect with the burgeoning sales force. In an effort to create the belief that he was approachable and authentic, King came up with a daring idea. During his planned speech at Kos’s annual sales meeting one year, he pulled out a guitar, sat in a chair in the middle of the stage, and, with the lights dimmed, played and sang a tune that perfectly summed up the point of his speech. While King admittedly won’t be selling recordings of his music anytime soon, the experience he created was so genuine and real that the entire audience stood and gave him a standing ovation that stretched on for several minutes. The organization went on to achieve record sales and revenues that year.
Experiences create beliefs—both good and bad. The thoughtful leader is constantly looking for ways to create experiences that support the company culture. This can be done through well-crafted experiences, such as a mid-speech solo, the sharing of a success story at a staff meeting, or even a company-wide email. As bestselling authors Roger Connors and Tom Smith write in Change The Culture, Change The Game, “[Leaders] should ask themselves this key question: What experiences do I need to provide in order to create the beliefs we need in this organization?”
Business leaders—as well as presidential candidates—could learn a thing or two from one of America’s finest Presidents, Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln understood the power of creating the right kind of experiences and set about doing so almost daily. Lincoln cared deeply for the Union soldiers under his command in the Civil War and spent hours greeting the troops individually as they passed through Washington enroute to the front lines. Come rain or shine, he would inspect the troops and thank them for their service. On one particularly stormy day, Lincoln was asked why he was willing to be drenched in the downpour while greeting the soldiers. “If they can stand it,” Lincoln said, “then I guess I can too.” The belief and devotion he created certainly played a role in the eventual victory for the Northern Army.
2) Clear Communication Is Essential
As in most political campaigns, it often boils down to the clarity of the message. For President Bill Clinton, his message famously centered around one key phrase: “It’s the economy stupid!” For President Barack Obama, his message rarely swerved far from a constant drum beat of renewed hope and change. But for the 2016 frontrunners, they have been consistently tripped up by campaign messages that have been easily misinterpreted or confused.
The same holds true for organizational leaders. When a CEO speaks, people listen. And if the message that is sent is unclear or confusing, the result can be misalignment and sometimes missed results.
Clear, concise communication is the key and always has been for leaders. Former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca famously said that “the only way to motivate people is to communicate with them.”
President Lincoln was known as a brilliant communicator and not by happenstance. When faced with an important speech or message, Lincoln was very thoughtful about what he was to say and careful to make sure his language was clear and unambiguous. Said Lincoln historian and author Donald Phillips: “Every one of his major addresses while in office [including the Gettysburg Address] was meticulously prepared and read from a completed manuscript. In the case of each, there was a specific message Lincoln wanted to convey. He was not talking just to hear his own voice.”
Today’s leaders should be just as mindful of the messages they may be sending. At Partners In Leadership, we have gathered data from tens of thousands of people in our Workplace Accountability Study. One of the most remarkable findings was how prevalent workplace confusion is around the most basic fundamental business properties—an organization’s own Key Results. Think about it, there is nothing more foundational in any organization than the results that a business or team needs to deliver during the year. And yet, when asked if they felt priorities changed frequently, creating confusion around the Key Results that needed to be achieved, an astounding 68% of people surveyed said “yes.” And in a follow-up question around the same issue, an even larger population—a whopping 87%—said that their companies could improve on clarity around their Key Results.
The message for organizational leaders and even presidential candidates is a simple one—think before you speak, and mean what you say.
3) Trust Is A Precious Commodity—Treat It As Such
With more American’s disapproving of them than approving the 2016 Presidential candidates, trust is becoming a central issue for many American voters, and when trust is lost, it is a difficult thing to regain.
The same is, of course, true for business leaders. The past is littered with talented business titans who have taken for granted the trust others have put in them. Pride, arrogance, and insincerity have all risen up to humble the most seasoned leader. With that firmly in mind, it’s imperative that today’s CEO not only recognize the importance of fostering trust within their organization, but also look for ways to enhance it on a regular—even daily—basis.
One essential component for creating greater trust in an organization is to create greater accountability—starting with the company’s leadership. Nothing generates greater trust for leaders than knowing that they will do what they say they will do. In the upcoming book Fix It: Getting Accountability Right, authors Roger Connors and Tom Smith write, “Accountable people can be counted on to do what they say, to not blame others, and to listen carefully to their colleagues, all essential ingredients to building trust.”
I worked for a time with a national sales director who modeled that behavior perfectly. He constantly worked to support his team and never to ask them to do something that he wasn’t willing to do. He would consistently look for ways to shower his people with genuine recognition. One year an interesting dilemma arose. The finance team at his organization uncovered the fact that a batch of sales data had been overlooked from almost six months. The data was unclear and difficult to break down into the individual territories. Not a single member of the sales team was aware that these sales hadn’t been credited, and the CFO recommended that the organization learn from the mistake and not bring it up. However, the national sales director knew that the right thing to do was to acknowledge the issue and find an appropriate way to reward the team that had made those sales happen. With the support of his CEO, a reward plan was developed, and at the next company sales meeting, that sales leader stood in front of his team, took responsibility for the error, and laid out a plan to recognize and reward the members of the team who had earned it. Later, he told me about seeing members of the sales organization so moved by the gesture that they were literally brought to tears. Trust in this leader wasn’t just saved—it was multiplied many times over.
Back one final time to President Lincoln, who more than any other U.S. President understood the importance and power of keeping and magnifying the trust of the populace and who worked his entire adult life to keep it. It’s for that reason, even 140 years after his death, that we still refer to him as “Honest Abe.” He disdained the practice of saying one thing and doing another, and he often compared the dishonesty of others to a massive tree that was being slowly killed by a creeping vine that wrapped around its trunk. “It’s like certain habits of men,” he would say, “it decorates the ruin it makes.” As a leader, it’s simply imperative that you keep the highest standards of character. Be the kind of leader that the organization can count on, and make sure you are surrounded by others who do the same. Trust isn’t the only thing on the line, your company’s overall success likely hinges upon it too.
In the end, CEOs are much like candidates for office—they are seeking to earn the confidence of their employees, colleagues, and investors every single day. Successful leaders are able to rally support for themselves and their plans by purposefully and conscientiously creating positive experiences, communicating in powerful and meaningful ways, and by treating trust as a precious gem to be protected and enhanced.
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By Gordon Treadway, CEO and President of Partners In Leadership. With nearly three decades of professional leadership experience, Gordon has been responsible for much of the organization’s day-to-day operations, sales management, and growth strategies.