Political Conventions: Taking the Stage, Ready or Not

Everyone has a different definition of readiness.

Readiness is a relative term. In the political world, ready or not, there are rare events that make careers. A political convention is one of these “every four year” events. While the presidential and vice-presidential candidates are the convention stars, they can matter even more for the future party leaders. The succession plan of a political party emerges through the visibility of the convention stage.

We can debate the viability of the tired, four-day political convention that more closely resembles an infomercial than the original intent as a decision-making event. But think how significant these conventions have become for prior keynotes and the primetime speakers.

Political conventions created a turning point.

Barack Obama was not a household name until 2004, when he electrified the Democratic convention with his keynote address. This appearance put him into the national spotlight, with visibility from Meet the Press to Oprah. If John Kerry had not offered that opening, his path may have been very different. At the time, Obama was the junior senator from Illinois. Was he ready for that stage? He obviously seized the moment.

In 1976 Gerald Ford earned the nomination, but Ronald Reagan concluded the Republican convention with impromptu remarks that caused some to wonder if they had selected the right nominee. These comments were made with minimal preparation, but set him on the path to win the Republican nomination in 1980. Reagan used his defeat in 1976 to take the stage, at the request of Ford, and cement his role as the future voice of the party.

Your time may not be the best time.

These opportunities to make your mark are not based just on individual readiness, but on knowing the rare opportunity and seizing it. While readiness is the No. 1 factor for most organizations in making advancement decisions, it takes wisdom to balance individual readiness with an opening that may not come again.

I learned this lesson earlier in my career. I was leading a project to develop a global talent program that was going to impact roles, promotions, pay and how to engage the workforce. It would hit every hot-button issue and was very ‘close to home’ for our leaders and their organizations. My global team was making quick progress, but we had kicked off just a few months before the annual summit, where all global leaders came together to look ahead. I told my executive sponsor that, while we were moving at a very rapid pace, we didn’t feel we would be ready to make a credible introduction at the summit. And if it didn’t go well, we were concerned it would derail the change and the project.

Her wise counsel to me was something like, “This is your chance with this group. You have support for some big changes. Having them together is a huge advantage you can’t replace. If you don’t take this chance, we may have to wait another year to get their real commitment. And then it may be too late. I know it’s too early and we don’t have it all figured out yet, but this is the time. You have to find a credible way to go for it. Seize the moment.” And we did.

She was so right and I reflect on her wisdom regularly when someone doesn’t feel they are ready for the big stage. She encouraged me to recognize that the opportunity was so great that we had to find a way to take advantage of it, even if it didn’t meet my personal definition of readiness.

Recognize the rare moment that may not come again.

Or the new dream job that may be the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, regardless of readiness. Marissa Mayer was recently named the CEO of Yahoo! because the company desperately needed to be reinvented. And who better to take on the challenge than a fresh, innovative leader. Was she completely ready? It was a bold move for them and for her. Mayer has said, “I like to get myself in over my head.” As a newcomer to the CEO ranks, she has that opportunity to stretch, not only because she thrives on it, but because the organization needs her to seize the moment. Her readiness wasn’t the only factor; this was her chance.

These rare moments of opportunity are not to be overlooked because of our individual or organizational readiness. The new market that is open now and will be crowded in 18 months, a chance meeting with an influential investor or the dream job that opens up a year too soon may all be once-in-a-lifetime chances.

Political candidates have the advantage of knowing that national conventions happen every four years. And for those who want to be viable on a national stage, this is their chance. Our challenge is to recognize the opportunities and “stages” that appear in front of us—some pre-planned, but many happen with no notice.

Are you ready?

The ability to see that rare opportunity and take it may not take us to the presidency, but it can make all the difference in our careers—whether we are ready or not.



Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.

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