Our Real Work Begins

It has been over a week now since our Presidential Election, a good time to reflect. A broad consensus would seem to exist that it is good the election is over — on this we can all agree, and hey, that’s a start.

If the numbers tell the tale correctly, slightly more than half of us are pleased with the outcome and slightly less than half not so much. Some might argue this is how the Founding Fathers would have it, the decision is meant to be hard, to test our minds around this important choice, to continually rebalance power and draw it back from wide deviations away from center. The election is also meant to test our system, the backbone of this magnificent, ongoing experiment known as democracy, with the orderly assignment and peaceful transition of authority. No one in any lifetime favors all the victors in office, but we know to lawfully accept them until it is time to choose again. We can be proud that the process of choice remains a shared value, whether we got whom we wanted or not.

As mentioned previously, I try hard in this blog to be nonpartisan, because I believe careers are best approached from a nonpartisan context and that business is something we share, something that can bring us together more than separate us if we want that. I like that a broad coalition of CEOs is putting immense pressure on our elected leaders in Washington to make a deal that avoids the Fiscal Cliff, and I am assured that when that deal is made it will include varied input and smart compromise from any number of clever contributors.

Elections probably shouldn’t be emotional, but they are. If ever logic needed to prevail over sentiment, one would think that would have to be the case in choosing our government officials by the prized process of casting a vote. Unfortunately our human leanings get in the way of that, and rather than carefully analyzing the particulars of a candidate’s expressed ideas, we get drawn into the contest. We begin to root. It becomes too much like a sporting event, the candidate is coached and the marketing team fuels the public rivalry. There we are, cheering and booing for one side or the other. The problem with that is that unlike sports, even if my team loses, I still live in my city and you live in yours. I don’t have to get onboard with your team because they won, and next season I can go back to rooting for my team, hoping at last justice is done and yours loses. I am happy to allow my emotions to be manipulated because it’s all part of the entertainment experience. It sort of doesn’t work if I don’t feel that way — why buy tickets and t-shirts and stay glued to the TV unless my honorable team can defeat your hack team?

Those kinds of emotions may carry over to the voting booth, but it is obvious the metaphor implodes there. Your team will never be my team, but the President has to be our President. That’s not just Constitutional law, it’s pragmatic. It’s meant to make sense, to bring order and assurance. In the workshop I teach on executive leadership, I spend a lot of time talking about how business is well advised to be pragmatic. There is a role for emotion in business, but that is in brand building, bringing a customer into a relationship with goods and services where Like Is Not Enough. Decision making among business leaders has to be sensible, reasonable, credible. When you work for a company, you may agree or disagree with the executive team, but you don’t undermine them. You discuss, push back, respectfully argue and create reason to be heard, but to defy the leadership is not only to put the business at risk but also yourself at risk.

Both major party candidates in this federal election had strengths and weaknesses. Both raised vast financial resources. Both purchased gobs of advertising in key battleground states, and both tirelessly traveled the country to connect with their prospective constituents. Much has been and will be written about the strategy and tactics utilized by each, but on Election Day the competition ended. When a President is elected, he is not the party’s President, he is the nation’s President. To think anything other than we all have a stake in the President’s success is folly — dangerous folly.

Where are our passions now best applied? To ensuring the pragmatic. To demanding consensus. To lending our shared voices to the phones, email, and social networks that reach our Congressional Representatives — letting them feel the heat and urgency of our need to get on with it. Democracy works when vast numbers participate and fails when apathy rules. Be passionate about insisting on reason, be passionate about reminding our elected leaders they have chosen a path of service, be passionate about our shared need for innovation and ingenuity that takes us somewhere better and doesn’t leave us running in place. Let all emotion — especially anger — be tabled for pragmatism, at least until the highly paid political consultants whip us into a frenzy again two or four years from now. If you have to be mad, be mad that our elected leaders just might have the chutzpah not to work together on your behalf. That is something you really can do something about. I can be accused at times of idealism, but I promise you we do have that power. We really can begin the real work that only gets done when shared.

A unique aspect of our humanity is the ability to experience emotion, to feel passion, and when appropriate, act on that to drive an outcome grounded in substance and belief. I have seen it happen more than a few times in my career, and when I have, it has been almost impossible to replicate or counter. It has to be well placed. Right now it has to be placed not on who won or lost the election, or whose team got a trophy or some time off, but on how the important work ahead gets done in a pragmatic way we can together acknowledge as progress.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously articulated, “We campaign in poetry, but govern in prose.” That’s a much more applicable conceit for elected leaders than winning the World Series or the Super Bowl. Let’s not wait another two or four years to do democracy. Let’s do it daily. Together.

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Debate Takeaways Tallied Tactfully

I try hard in this blog to leave out my personal politics, which isn’t all that hard to do since I consider the topic of business innovation and its various threads to be about as nonpartisan a subject as there should be.  Business enterprise and creativity are as fundamental to a shared sense of values as I can imagine, and where we may often disagree on the “how” I hope we don’t much disagree on the “why.”  Together we create our economy, our opportunities, and our experiment in progress called democracy.  We argue as we should about issues of governance and legal particulars, but we should agree that following the law is our duty as much as evolving it with the times is our right.

What does all that have to do with the Presidential Debates?  While I was watching the first of them this week, I saw as I often do a collection of ideas that can be applied to our business thinking, in complete abstraction of the of the candidates, what they said, or who won, if there is such a thing (anytime rigorous and important discussion is had in front of and with the people, the people win).  Presidential Debates are anything but ordinary, like the Olympics we have to wait four years for the next staging, but other than reinforcing what we already believe or possibly swaying a swing voter, there seems a deeper construct evidenced and worth exploring.

During the first debate one of my friends on Facebook likened it to a supercharged job interview, where the applicants were down to the final two, and given the stakes forced to faceoff in front of a panel consisting of more than 65 million of their prospective employers.  I liked that analogy a lot — I am not even sure it is an analogy — but I was thinking about the event a little differently.  For some reason, the debate struck me as the ultimate competitive sales call, where rather than entering a prospective client’s office before or after your potential competitor, you had to handle the sales call in tandem.  Many of us have been on more sales calls than we want to remember, but seldom have I heard people either leaving or entering the room thinking of the other guy as their opponent.  Perhaps that is more the case than we think — if that were going through our minds, we might approach the business pitch a little differently.

What stood out for me in the debate was the immense amount of time both candidates invested in preparation for the 90 minutes they spent together in the public eye.  That 90 minutes on the rarely shared dais probably felt like a lifetime to the candidates, or opponents, but once it was behind them, it probably felt like a millisecond.  I am sure the time leading up to the debate never felt excessive, as every precious moment invested in preparation was clearly a tradeoff borrowed from some other critical activity.  As they felt the pressure of the event nearing, those tradeoffs had to favor dedicated preparation pods over other pressing conflicts.  Preparation time is always discretionary, but imagine procrastinating too long when you know in heart and mind that preparation is everything.  Definitely reminds me of selling — if you aren’t prepared, you’re sunk, your client expects you to be prepared and has no reason to cut you any slack on a stumble.

Second to preparation, I was struck by its counterpart, the role of extemporaneous behavior, dancing in the moment, listening, reacting, evidencing spontaneity that reflected realtime analysis and response to the unexpected, to the extent anything said might be unexpected.  You can rehearse a speech or pitch perfectly, and both candidates did for multiple segments, but how do you handle the moment when someone says something you believe to be wrong, untrue, or unsupported?  I was wary going into the debate that both opponents had come with a quiver full of “zingers” to flick at the other, where I couldn’t imagine anything less dignified than a canned response played as in the moment.  Luckily we were spared that disrespect, and I take it as a lesson.  There is a huge difference between a heartfelt moment and a too cleverly scripted remark — no one wants to hear B material from an A level player.  The balance of preparation and live playtime is the heart of sales as it was the heart of the debate.  We can argue at will about who did it better, but in my mind I kept thinking how consistently hard this is to pull off, to balance preloaded preparation with inspired retort, the art of the pivot.

Holding the balance between preparation and extemporaneous response was the notion of authenticity.  Each word a candidates says adds to an outcome, and as we all have so often experienced, style is content.  Any debate coach or sales leader will tell you how you say something matters as much or more than what you say, and here again, you have to be careful at all moments under extreme pressure to keep your eyes on the prize.  The presentation layer matters, its visceral nature reflects passion and deliberation, that which people remember more than words.  Yet it can’t be an act, it has to be who you are.  Surely you can say what you want, anything you want, and you can say it any way you want, but ultimately your goal is not to win the debate, it is to win the Presidency.  Cut to the sales call; you need to make a good impression, often you think you need to say what the client wants to hear just to stay in the room, but after you leave the room those words and that style can haunt you.  Are you being consistent with what you said before and what you intend to do after?  Do people believe that is what you really mean?  That is the authenticity of your belief set, it underlies every moment you are on your feet, and it matters.

Only in high school are the trophies handed out after the tournament.  In most of life the true impact comes much later — which means that immediately following the debate is the regroup.  What went right, wrong, better or worse than expected, and how will that be factored into your next encounter.  High stakes exchanges often reward innovation and quick thinking, playing it safe is unlikely to impress, and taking the right risk at the right moment calculated on the spot can be what it takes to close the sale.  These candidates still have time to course correct or double down on their strides, and in the same way, an account is seldom awarded after an early high stakes encounter.  To internalize the impact of your efforts and incorporate that into a subsequent approach is to know you participated in the event rather than performed.  The real prize can still be up for grabs, which takes you back to the process, the cycle — preparation, extemporaneous interaction, authenticity, and strategic evaluation to reposition.

Landing an account of any size will never be the same as a Presidential Debate, but maybe with President Obama and Governor Romney at the podium fixed in your mind, your next high pressured sales call might be a tiny bit better.