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January 2009

LETTER TO A NEW PRESIDENT

Just today coming out of a favorite Indian restaurant in London, the gentleman who oversees the place, and who has served us for years, asked us with an expectant grin on his face, “How’s your new President?”

My wife and I realized that we had no simple answer. We could have said President Obama is riding an extraordinary wave of enthusiasm and hopefulness and we’re rooting for him, as everyone of good will is. We could have said at times some of the pronouncements and pending legislative bills and trenchant infighting seem to reek of business as usual. We could have said either, or both, or much more.

So instead of weighing in on that front, here’s a message to our new President, winnowed from some of what we’ve seen work for and from leaders around the world. I write this only partially in the hopes that someone will forward this to someone who may forward it to someone and he may actually get some of this input through a ‘six degrees of separation’ Black Swan social media event (I know you’ll enjoy deconstructing that sentence!). But I really offer it as a set of lessons that work whether you’re President of the United States, President of a local council, or trying to turn around your own three person service firm in distinctively challenging times.

USE THE ESTABLISHED URGENCY TO GOOD EFFECT

Change experts agree that leaders have first to establish a sense of urgency as to the non-negotiability of the change imperative.

Certainly that part of the President’s job is done…by shock wave after shock wave of economic unraveling as economies have plunged and institutions have collapsed or had to be nationalized. With plummeting housing numbers, job losses and more, in the midst of continued volatility in Pakistan and the exacerbating of an already bad situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, urgency is certainly well established.

But Obama has to use that urgency to create priorities, policies and actions that directly address the sources of turmoil. And this leads us to the second need.

INTERROGATE REALITY AND GIVE US A FACT-BASED VISION

Perhaps the proudest achievement of the legacy of Jack Welch at GE is when people who studied GE’s culture reported, ‘there isn’t an ounce of denial in that company’. Not surprisingly Jim Collins in his study of great companies mentions as a paramount aptitude, the ability to face the facts…with faith. In my book LIBERATING PASSION I mention the need to accept ‘what is’ but always with ‘the eyes of possibility.’

Lou Gerstner got IBM to face where it had lost market leadership, to investigate the need for integrated enterprise solutions, and even to prepare the ground for moving to consulting and services and away from computer products. For an outsider to shake up so venerable an organization required a rock-solid reality addiction, coupled with a real passion for helping IBM leverage its real strengths to win once more.

Alan Leighton has done the same in turning around the UK’s Royal Mail. In another now well known context, David Petraeus helped Iraq take a step forward towards greater normalcy and peace by realizing that troops and military couldn’t be the only solution. By recruiting Sunni tribes and influentials onto the side of the US and their coalition partners and weaning them of Al Qaeda’s barbaric tactics (which had caused widespread suffering for these very people), Petraeus and his cohorts helped create a breakthrough.

Similarly Obama needs to make sure we all ‘understand’ and ‘accept’ the realities in each of the challenges we face. He should invite wide-ranging debate but fast from every credible perspective, and then make a case for the point of view he’s arrived at, also fast.

He should present a specific vision that is not rhetoric based, but insight and fact based, relative to the economy, health-care, the environment and green jobs, dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Middle East peace process and perhaps one to two other towering priorities. The vision should address all major viewpoints (so no one can credibly assert there is bias or ideology rather than investigation at work) and then take as I said above, a view, make a case, and then sell it to us.

Until we buy the vision, unless we understand the facts on which the vision is based, we can have little confidence in the way forward. And that’s dangerous because then all it takes are inflamed rhetorical broadsides to make us wonder if due care has really been taken. We need the confidence to commit and to provide Obama the support for him to deliver politically what the country, and possibly the world, needs practically.

We need to make the case.

PROVOKE THE FUTURE

We have to move past inertia and into the future we need. This can be done in two primary ways. One is called ‘the dominant logic challenge’.

For each of the identified challenges we should list what the current assumptions and thinking has been. For example some dominant (if suspicious) assumptions might include ‘conclusions’ like: a stimulus has to involve no transparency or accountability of money spent (a critique of money doled out by Hank Paulson and the outgoing US administration), or that you can militarily solve the problem of Hamas in Gaza, or green technology won’t be economically viable for the foreseeable future.

So for each top priority area we wish to progress, we list all the assumptions that have dominated our policies to date and we challenge or expand each one of them — this is a way to provoke fresh thinking and ‘blow up the limiting box’. Otherwise we may spin our wheels energetically acting on things that don’t work or worse, which may continue to backfire as they have to date.

Secondarily, we start from the fact-based vision, and brainstorm backwards, to a set of milestones. And then we (having first challenged our dominant logic) create numerous scenarios or ‘critical paths’ to those milestones, tapping the widest and most relevant band of intelligence we can.

Third, and this is critical for keeping up momentum, and ensuring consistent support from the US and even the global public: for each key identified challenge, establish a dashboard, a set of quantitative and qualitative metrics that answer the question, “How would we know real progress here if we saw it?” Agreeing what are relevant success metrics is critical, because then we can all tell how we’re doing and where we are. So with the economy, what are the 3-4 most critical numbers that will tell us we’ve bottomed out, or are moving towards recovery? And for each of those numbers, what are the key drivers?

It will take wide-ranging discussion, debate and discernment to establish these measures. But if we have an agreed dashboard, only then do we have an agreed mission. And then, all energy goes into making that happen. We know from the global impact of the Total Quality movement, that ‘what gets measured gets done’, and you ‘don’t get what you expect, you get what you inspect’.

Create key measures for all the key initiatives, ensure they are specific, explain their relevance and comprehensiveness, and then we can together hold each other accountable for making them happen.

CREATE VIRTUOSO TEAMS

You need an overall team yes, and the new US President has selected some impressive members, as well as made some seemingly bizarre choices, like our ‘tax-challenged’ incoming Treasury Secretary. However assembling talent is not the same as creating a team. And this has to be done at numerous levels.

First, at the Cabinet or senior leadership level, taking a page from the insights of our strategic allies, Katzenbach Partners, the President has to be clear what tasks require real collaboration and the multiplier effect of team engagement from these individuals. And for these purposes and these ends, these disparate individuals have to be forged into a team. And that means they have to be accountable for a common result, have mutual accountabilities, agree how they will work, and co-create outcomes that wouldn’t be possible without their creative collaboration.

Apart from specific areas where that team has to deliver, as John Kotter has said, for the overall change effort, there probably needs to be a multi-level guiding coalition. Their job would be to ensure people keep their eye on the right balls, that urgency and edge are retained, that the vision is converted into meaningful projects, that quick wins are achieved and publicized to protect confidence and energy, and that the teams established to progress each area, function effectively and cohesively. Such a coalition should be identified, inducted, developed and launched publicly and held accountable by the Chief Executive.

As this implies, sub-teams may have to be created for the various initiatives. And we should know who is on each team, and it should be a combination of experience, as well as some outsider views so old ‘dominant logic’ doesn’t continue to automatically prevail. It would be good if some of the teams also had external resources. For example getting some prominent Arab Americans on a Middle East Peace team, or inviting teachers from the Muslim world or interested leaders in Europe to also play some role on such a team would be powerful. In short, we need some members or inputs into the team that bring true diversity and variety of perspectives and inputs.

Also we’ve called these ‘virtuoso teams’ meaning each team should allow top talent to express itself, though in collaboration. They need to be able to fight fast and gracefully for things everyone is committed to, to advance a cause not personal agendas. Yet also and very critically, individual ability or even genius needs to be stoked, not suppressed.

MAKE THE BIG HITS HAPPEN

First, find influentials, people who have the credibility and following necessary to help make these big hits happen. Sell them, enroll them, and as we said above put some of them on the team, help them write their own victory speech as William Ury said, use the unprecedented pain being experienced globally to publicize intransigence and to evoke cooperation. No public official can afford today to be seen as retarding recovery, no political leader can be seen to be a barrier to essential progress in energy, healthcare or even geopolitics. Yes people have different constituencies, but that’s why we have to frame progress in numerous ways.

Scenario theorists have often argued, that as happened in South Africa when Apartheid was transcended, you have to make visible all possible scenarios, all that rationally could happen and pick those that are most ‘positive sum’ that represent the best possible win/win overall, and so are most sustainable. When people agree on the scenarios and their implications, they can more readily realize their own best interests mandate certain tough but essential choices. Moreover, such trade-offs can then be made synergistically.

While aiming for identified big hits, we should not succumb to the fallacy that cripples most projects — namely assuming that nothing will go wrong. We should expect barriers, delays, regressions, and should actually plan a response to every one we can anticipate. That way even if the truly unexpected happens, and we have no response that fits precisely, we’ll still be emotionally and psychologically ready to adapt and move decisively and quickly.

We need outside perspectives throughout as earlier stated. Soon after 9/11 my mentor M. Scott Peck, the author of THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED tried to suggest that his path-breaking community building methodology (outlined in THE DIFFERENT DRUM) be applied, with the help of my own company Sensei which has an office and personnel in Pakistan, to do ‘community building in Afghanistan’ between key tribes and even with key counterparts in Pakistan. It isn’t a mystical undertaking, the methodology works tangibly and powerfully across racial, ethnic, and paradigmatic divides. At any rate whatever the merits of the technology, the fact that with his reputation he couldn’t even get a hearing for the idea from any US governmental body, shows how averse we are to even educating ourselves as to options. We should be exploring ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ options as widely and thoroughly as possible, and then making our call.

A demonstration of the power of such initiative is the well-known work of the author of THREE CUPS OF TEA, who has been successful precisely because he’s circumvented the US government in his attempt to build schools in tribal parts of Pakistan. This way no one doubts the intention behind the money and he is seen as an independent actor not a government stooge. But understanding how that works, and encouraging and enabling others in this regard, particularly now as the US government has new ‘branding’ would all be important. Identifying those who seek to make such a difference and sharing best practices, resources and learnings with them would give the overall effort that much more traction and vitality.

ENROLL THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

Winston Churchill famously observed, “The nation had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to give the roar.” And what a roar it was that strengthened the national sinew and helped the British people define themselves, their courage and their capabilities.

JFK enrolled our sense of possibility and revitalized a sense of American capability by challenging us to put a man on the moon safely in a decade.

People are willing to be recruited. In pain and anxiety we either numb ourselves through mindless entertainment and consumption (the solution post 9/11 it seems), or else call forth our better energies.

David Brooks writing in THE NEW YORK TIMES rightly pointed out that perhaps we are defined, dare I say even measured, not so much by what we ask of life, but by what life asks of us.

Well Mr. President, ask of us something meaningful, give us a way to contribute, communicate both progress and set-backs with the Churchillian capacity to face disaster and evoke heroism, level with us and give us dashboards so we can see how we’re doing and most importantly so we can know we are doing the right things. If we do the right things and fail, fine we’ll recover and course-correct. But it would be heart-breaking to find we’ve expended four years in dubious detours and smokescreens.

All leaders have to enroll their people. On January 5th this year, virtually every employee of every company returned to work to hear of salaries that would be frozen, bonuses that wouldn’t be given, travel that had to be slashed, development initiatives that would be deferred, jobs that would be lost and more. I wish I could say this was preceded by a call to arms, that people were engaged to help the company win, that as much energy has gone into bonding people together into a common cause as has in telling them where to scimp, cut corners, and do things like eliminate newspaper deliveries to their offices. I wish the argument had been about value rather than cost, and winning rather than whining. That said, leaders, it’s still not too late to change the conversation, and therefore the tempo, the energy, and the quality of voluntary passion you liberate at this crucial time.

In the US we need to renew our schools so that kids have skills to compete and create value in the 21st century — we need more than financial jugglers and dot.com narcissists. We need to get viable banks identified, toxic assets off their balance sheets, and get them lending again — so the next Google that comes along, perhaps in the area of Green Technology, can get the funding and support it deserves. We need to spend and stimulate, but then return to fiscal conservatism and responsibility fast. We need to tell the truth to our friends in the world and engage our adversaries imaginatively not obstinately. And we need a cultural transformation urgently…away from slavishly idolizing status and back to respecting and honoring stature.

Plato said, “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” In a company or country, no truer words have been spoken.

GOING FORWARD

So Mr. President, and to all leaders everywhere, now is a time for real leadership,. Not chest-pounding or pom pom waving, but future-producing, people enrolling, team creating, big-hit focused, reality-facing, transparency-addicted, scorecard-driven, personal engagement based, leadership.

Surely if the American people elected and cheered a leader of African American heritage, to lead us from a town that slaves who had no vote once built, if Barack Hussein Obama can be our widely lauded American leader, perhaps we can break other molds too.

Perhaps Mr. President we can take all we’ve learned from the world of enterprise, of value-creation and global leadership, and apply it here.

If you try to bake a cake and the cake refuses to rise, the conclusion can’t be that ‘cakes don’t rise’. They do, there’s ample evidence of it. The conclusion is we have to bake our cake differently.

Well results are like cakes, they happen, they rise. If government has failed to produce results in certain areas, it’s not because those results are impossible. It doesn’t mean government can’t make a difference. But it will require not more government, but better government. These challenges require new actions, they require us to re-imagine our strategies and our scorecards.

It’s that simple. Alas simple, just not easy.

That’s why we need leadership.

And that’s also why all of us, in our own lives and work, have to not only ask for leadership…we have to provide it.