Monday, June 8, 2009

Lessons on Leadership: Obama’s Health Care Strategy

The New York Times magazine had a terrific article by Matt Bai yesterday on how President Obama and his team are building momentum toward a new health care plan that he sees as the #1 priority for the Administration. Reading the piece I couldn’t help but be struck at the tactical steps being taken that are nothing short of brilliant. These same tactics are essential ingredients to effective implementation of complex strategies, in politics, in business, and in everyday life. Here’s a quick summary:

1. Understand, and Co-opt, Dominant Power Structures.

Organizations are not boxes on a chart. They are made of people who have power, like power, and use power. Outsiders, change agents, even CEOs, will almost certainly fail if they don’t appreciate this reality. From President Bush’s social security plan to President Clinton’s own health care tsunami, a strategy of imposing a solution on upper-level managers, or members of Congress, does not work.

2. Relationships Win.

President Obama and Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel have brought on board the Administration team a wide selection of talent with tremendous personal and professional connections to key members of Congress. Former chiefs of staff and long-time aides to key legislators come with long relationships, trust, and inside information on how things really work, skill-sets that are replaceable.

3. Symbolic Gestures Help.

President Obama would just “happen” to drop by when a Senator was meeting with one of his staff. Invites to the White House theatre, dinners, and other social occasions for members of Congress is standard practice (as is a careful accounting of who goes and how often).

4. Involving Key Players Builds Buy-In.

Rather than show up with a fait accompli, President Obama’s strategy is to lay out the vision for health care reform, and work directly with Congress in defining the specific parameters of what the reform will look like. By involving Congress in the details, they gain ownership, and are more likely to move forward with actual implementation.

5. Sell the Strategy.

One of the toughest lessons of management is that the best ideas don’t win. The “right” answer does not win. What wins is what can be passed, and implemented. Getting there means the CEO must sell the strategy to key constituencies. This is often one of the hardest lessons for MBA students to get. They are used to being right (that’s how you get into b-school to start with), but being right is not enough. You have to convince others that you are right. As Matt Bai of the New York Times points out, expect Obama to be very active in not only selling whatever health care reform plan emerges, but the very idea that some type of universal health care plan is a good thing.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Power of Perceptions

Spring is in the air, even in the northern reaches of New England where I call home. Summer is almost here. The stock market is up, a lot. GM has been “fixed,” Fiat is buying Chrysler, buyers are lining up to bid on foreclosed homes in Phoenix, and even newspapers are less dead than they were a few months ago. It seems rather easy, doesn’t it?

Call it the power of perceptions. Sentiment has turned from utter disaster to great hope, and I like it. My tennis game is getting better, my weight is terrific, my cooking better than ever, and I like it. If we feel something is, then it is. The power of perceptions. If reality intrudes on this pretty picture, and it turns out that GM is not fixed, that nobody is reading newspapers, and that my tennis game isn’t all the good after all, we’re in deep trouble. So I prefer to believe that all is good with the world, we are getting better, and summer is just around the corner. Right?