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Thursday
May012008

Business Lessons from the Presidential Primaries

Whether you agree with the election and selection process of the presidential candidates in the U.S. this year - or the choices of the candidates - one thing is certain. It’s leaving us an unprecedented volume of lessons, even for us business people.

Here are some of the lessons I have been jotting down from time to time. They are not in any particular order, nor is this an exhaustive list, by any means. But it’s a start and my hope is that you will contribute your own lessons by responding to this article.

So here we go. As you read these, think about whether your business is on the right track or it needs to make a correction.

Lesson #1: Secure the “three M’s” as Early as Possible. We need three things while starting and managing a successful enterprise - the three M’s: 1) Message, 2) (Wo)Men, and 3) Money. Having these three ingredients in place won’t guarantee success, of course, but we are bound to suffer if one of them is missing or weak. Hillary Clinton had money and manpower but her message was weak. Obama had all three. None of the candidates on the Republican side had all three to begin with. The only thing that John McCain had was message and he was seriously lacking in the other two.

Which brings me to my next point…

Lesson #2: You don’t have to be absolutely perfect, only relatively better. John McCain was relatively the best candidate among those who could put together some of these resources through the election process. He had a sincere message that resonated with a large population but seriously lacked enough funding and a strong team. There were other candidates, Mitt Romney, for example, who had funding and people in place but seriously lacked a strong message. By the way, a strong message will attract people and funding but people and funding without a strong, consistent message won’t work. In other words, the Message is most important among the three.

And a strong message is not a trivial thing…

Lesson #3: You must OWN your message, BE your message, not just deliver it as written by others for you.
McCain owned it through his commitment to life-time of service and passionately living it. Obama did it by writing two books, and in the process honing his message through deep introspection. Delivering a message handed by strategists and advisors does not stick. It’s important to be able to listen to your team. But if you don’t have your own message that you passionately and deeply believe in, you will get swayed too much by the shifting winds and opinions of the advisors, strategists and, god forbid, the media and the pundits. A business owner must own her message, too. Otherwise she will be swayed by the forces of the market, the employees, the consultants, the ad agencies and the customers.

But the message must be effectively delivered…

Lesson #4: You must connect - emotionally - with people through your message.
From the get-go, Obama’s message of hope resonated with a lot of people. He was able to connect with people through the content and also the delivery of his message. He was able to stir up deep emotions in people who listened to his speeches. Hillary Clinton could not do so, for the most part. But every time she did - the emotional display in New Hampshire combined with the Q & A style of speeches she developed, for example - she did well.

But how are we assured that we have a terrific message? One of the things it must have is that it’s built on the strengths - and seeming weaknesses - of the candidate…

Lesson #5: Turn your weaknesses into strengths.
Or, even better, find a way to see your greatest weaknesses as your greatest strengths. For example, “lack of experience” for Barak Obama was reframed by his team as “lack of wrong experience which leads to wrong judgments” hence the “right kind of judgment” or “right kind of mindset” that would allow him to avoid mistakes like prematurely going to war. By contrast, the Clinton Campaign took her away from her biggest strength - her experience - and tried to frame her as a Change Candidate when it became a fad. In the process, the her message became diluted.

A message should resonate with the voters, obviously, but it also must resonate with your team, in this case the volunteers and supporters…

Lesson #6: At the end of the day, it’s your people who will make you successful, or not.
If you have a team of energized, passionate, dedicated people supporting you, working with you, you become unstoppable. This is why Obama won almost every contest where there was a ground battle, like the caucuses. This also generated millions of dollars from donors who donated small amounts adding up to about 30% of the funds raised by the campaign.
But your people must also be able to “close deals…”

Lesson #7: You can’t rely just on great marketing and adverting, you need a terrific sales team - volunteers in this case - who will knock on doors and “close the deal” face to face.
Changing people’s minds is no easy feat. Once made up, minds don’t change very easily. Even after having all the elements of success in place, it was a tough, long, hard, hand-to-hand operation on the ground for the Obama Campaign, which ultimately tipped the scale. This is especially true against a well-established, well-positioned competition, like Hillary Clinton.

More so when the going gets tough…

Lesson #8: Don’t give up when things look bleak.
One quality that all three candidates (Clinton, Obama and McCain) shared was their perseverance. Perseverance is not enough by itself but without it, none of them would have advanced as far as they did in the elections. Perhaps the best example of this is John McCain fighting on in the beginning of his campaign when everyone had given up on him.

But in the end, you must make “all of this” not just about you. It must be about something else…

Lesson #9: Don’t make it all about you, make it about a higher cause, a purpose that’s beyond any one person, or even a group of people, including the candidate.
 In the end the Obama Campaign was successful in making this a “Cause” and a “Movement” in ways that the Clinton Campaign was not able to do. They were successful in making the election much bigger than just a winning an election. Their campaign was about healing the wounds. It was about making the “wrongs” “right.” It was about transcending the politics of small-mindedness, racism and prejudice. It was about reaching deep within ourselves and getting in touch with our highest essence. When you have a mission that’s bigger than you, unforeseen hands begin to work with you.

This is not over, of course, which means that there is a lot that’s still to be learned. I will continue to journal my own lessons and, if I think they help the you, bring them to you in this blog.

In the meantime, why not share your lessons with us? You can do so easily by responding to this blog. Or send them to me by email and I will publish them here with proper credits to you.

Happy Success.
Bhavesh.

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