What A Presidential Campaign Teaches Us About Leading Change

Let’s set aside politics for whom you support in the 2012 presidential election. You can learn a lot from presidential campaigns about how to lead change in your team or organization.

A presidential campaign is designed to convince voters that their candidate is the one you should choose on Election Day.

Likewise, in organizational change the team “votes” if they buy in and want to make the change happen. This buy-in is a mysterious and personal decision driven by a belief that tomorrow will be better than today. And the team must understand how they are impacted and their role. As a leader, you aren’t running against another candidate, but resistance to change. Doing nothing.

Successful campaigns use some key strategies that are also essential in successful change efforts.

Clear message. Candidates are roasted for flip-flopping and changing their views based on the audience. Winning candidates typically have a clear message and strategy based on easy to understand principles. Reagan’s was lower taxes and less governmental involvement. Lincoln was against slavery. Obama’s was Change. It’s essential for your purpose and plan to be clear. If you can’t explain the change in simple language to your grandmother, then you have more work to do.

“All politics is local.” This quote from Tip O’Neil, a former Speaker of the House, conveys that voters care most about their situation, their job and their town. For communicating a big change, you have to address ‘what this means for me’ and what tomorrow looks like.

First followers matter. No presidential campaign gets off the ground without a core group of people who believe in him or her and are willing to commit time, money and resources to the cause. These are your change agents who spread the word and share the positives of getting on board. You need this core group of believers, as you can’t do it alone.

Connect and reconnect. The Obama campaign was the first to fully utilize social media to drive up engagement. Every person who attended a rally was asked to take out their phones and text in their phone numbers to stay in touch. They used technology to create virtual communities so that everyone could get involved. Supporters were able to get online and commit to calling 10 other voters. These strategies kept voters engaged and involved rather than standing on the sideline.

Remember the math. The delegate math is the ultimate measure for the candidate who gets the party’s nomination. Presidential campaigns know the states with electoral votes that are up for grabs and spend their energies there. Most changes have an ultimate measure of success; it might be revenue, growth or survey results. You need to know how success is realized and make sure you keep your eye on how to get there. And, like a presidential campaign, spend your energies where you have the greatest opportunity or risk.

As you cheer on your candidate this year, or shake your head over the craziness of it all, take a step back and look at the campaign strategies that work. You’ll find some great ideas that you can duplicate at work and will help you defeat your biggest opponent in this race: resistance.


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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