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The Obama effect


ObamaBarack Obama's upbeat messages of 'hope', 'opportunity', 'change' and 'yes we can' have swept him to the White House amidst a mood of euphoria. His ascent from unknown congressman to a beacon of progress and optimism to the world offers a wealth of lessons for the business world – particularly in today's brutal climate. John Campbell offers an insight into what CEOs can learn from Obama's strategy.

Solve the problem

Albert Einstein once commented: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them."

Einstein's pearls of wisdom are reinforced by a warning about making cutbacks in the wrong areas. Dr Gerry Faust, a renowned San Diego-based management consultant who I have worked with on several projects, said: "If you try to change a large crappy system with only a cutting back strategy, you just end up with a smaller crappy system."
In any downturn, it is important to take stock and reaffirm your purpose. Just as Obama seeks to change the American public's vision of government, businesses face an equally difficult task when asking how do you run your business, what is your company's raison d'etre? – and how can you add long-term sustainable value?

Photo of John Campbell"Obama's campaign showed the power of a focussed strategy around a clear vision and values being relentlessly pursued – an important lesson for any MD or CEO."

Businesses that lose sight of their goals and core values are the ones most at risk. Obama's campaign showed the power of a focussed strategy around a clear vision and values being relentlessly pursued – an important lesson for any MD or CEO.

Engage with target audiences

Obama has also focused on engaging a broad audience through appointments and speeches across the country, even his train journey to the inaugural ceremony demonstrated his desire to 'reach out'. Managers should be equally proactive, from spending more time 'on the floor' to communicating with and meeting their customers and suppliers regularly.

Such communication and engagement is also pertinent when leading both national and international businesses with multiple locations. As operations span borders, the risk of employees feeling disconnected from your vision is troubling in good times, but during recessions it can be crucial to retaining your most talented team members.
In one recent project, we brought together 25 leaders from across Interorient's international offices to develop their leadership skills. They were brought together as the business recognised the importance of empowering each manager to lead in their own geographical region, but at the same time acknowledging the need for the managers to appreciate and connect with the whole company's vision.
While the project focused on enhancing their own individual skills, the process also played an important team building function and allowed the senior managers in the business to interact face-to-face with the key managers from across the world.

Obama's skills in this arena may have opened the door to the Oval Office but they also bring a significant burden of responsibility. Any manager promising their teams' future success must be equipped with the requisite leadership skills to engage and motivate them on the hard journey ahead.

Furthermore, it's important that once you have assembled your team, you continually engage and motivate them. Obama has already taken steps to ensure this, from allowing Secretary of State Clinton the freedom to quickly hold significant international meetings, to engaging Vice-President Joe Biden in the debate and negotiations around the proposed economic stimulus.

Stay hopeful, focused and positive

Even in the midst of horrific prison camp tribulations, Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl was able to articulate the following thought-provoking comment: "Everything can be taken from a man but the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

In this economic crisis we have to remain positive about the future and we have to build that hope from within ourselves. At the corporate level it means creating a vision of hope, grounded in reality, and yet compelling and constantly spoken.

Adopting a hopeful and positive approach will convert into opportunity. The challenge when all is doom and gloom is to see the new doors which can be opened and focus on making the most of them. Change the paradigm from 'seeing is believing' to 'believe it and you will see it' – and it will make a substantial difference to your business, team and your personal fulfilment.

"Businesses that lose sight of their goals and core values are the ones most at risk."

This is especially important if you are taking the helm of a team which is facing their first downturn, or perhaps if several senior members of the business are new in their roles. The staff and stakeholders in the business will be looking for reassurance that the leadership believe they can overcome the challenges ahead, and by offering them a positive vision you can achieve.

The current financial challenges also present great opportunities, and if you believe this they will appear: look at problems differently, and ask 'how can we turn this to our advantage?'

Change and be different

Harnessing the opportunities often requires change. I prefer to call this 'transformation' to allow for not merely downsizing and lean making, but to also encourage shifting the business model.

The real call for leadership now is about 'how can I do this differently?' To do more with less, bosses need to shift from a focus on competence – an adequacy to 'get by' – to liberating talent by harnessing the talents of everyone in the organisation and not the favoured 10%. It also means challenging assumptions about every aspect of the organisation. In the current climate it is likely that the assumptions that fuelled your success don't work any more – a new paradigm is needed. Being different and behaving differently to your competitors within your business model, your employee engagement, and your customer experience will enhance your performance.

Create an aspirational vision and keep communicating it

As Obama is already demonstrating, the value of identifying and engaging all those who play a role in your organisation and communicating to them a clear, aspirational vision is crucial. Don't be tied down by the past, or by the challenges you face – identify your goals and build momentum towards achieving them. You can then begin to assert your vision, build support and make progress even in the toughest of times.

By adopting the mantra 'Yes, we can!' managers and leaders will be truly focused on believing in the opportunities available, capitalising upon them and delivering the success for their company. Believe it and you will see it.

John Campbell is Chairman of organisational and people development consultancy Primeast


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