Obama’s Best Practices: Lessons Learned from an Historic Campaign (Part One)

team-obama.gifby Denis Campbell —

In the early stages, Barack Obama’s Presidential quest was called quixotic at best and at worst political suicide. Here was a man barely in the US Senate who had just two years prior suffered a bruising defeat for an open Congressional seat and here he was taking on the vaunted Clinton machine, Hillary and Bill, in what was deemed by most as her election victory lap.

The country had a long history of rewarding political dynastic families, from Adams to Roosevelt and it was Bush 41 then Clinton 42 then Bush 43 so the world was getting ready in January for Clinton (Hillary) 44. We forgot to read the script and indeed rejected the ending resoundingly.

Examining Obama’s campaign as a journalist and… a businessman, my other day job has long been as a corporate change consultant, I’m always looking for ‘best practices’ wherever they are found and seeing how they can be universally applied. This was a textbook example of how to build and run a campaign. It ended up being a three-quarters of a billion dollar business, almost overnight. Were Obama for America a pure business venture, it would have ranked ninth on the Inc. Magazine list of growing, entrepreneurial, and innovative businesses.

Barack Obama’s business and leadership lessons are ones everyone can and indeed should learn and apply. Whether one is running a political leadership campaign (as we in the UK will shortly experience) or trying to survive, rebuild and thrive during a global recession, there are numerous practical and specific lessons to be learned from him and the campaign created by David Plouffe and David Axelrod.

It was an almost flawless campaign driven by Obama’s steely determination, focus, temperament and character. There are dozens of simple lessons other politicians and businesses can learn from his zero-defect, customer (voter)-focused, decentralised and responsive business. Watch this space as this is the beginning of what will become a continuing series, lecture series and book on the business and political lessons of last 22 months to be called:

The Obama Team’s Winning Best Practices

  • Barack Obama Articulated and Stuck to a Clear Vision. Vision is a grossly over-used term in politics and business. Never before has there been a candidate with his ability to look ahead and see over the horizon. It was little surprise to learn Wednesday that President-elect Obama has had a team in place and was quietly working on transition issues months before anyone noticed.

    What made this election so exciting and refreshing was the American people pressed both candidates to answer questions, refusing to blindly accept either: empty platitudes (everywhere Obama spoke he learned from his bruising battles with Hillary Clinton that he needed to provide detailed, short, specific solutions) or… negative, sarcastic Karl Rove style old-school attacks.

    This was the public’s complete repudiation of past campaigns. Obama, by refusing to speak personally ill of his opponent (his policies were fair game) and taking the high road, he followed his own mantra and created a big election about big issues. With an economy in melt-down and one side looking serious while the other flails and bring up past associations and whispers falsehoods for the press to run with and attack him personally, the public never bought into it.

    This was the most informed electorate in history. It was a technological cornucopia of an election. Campaign websites were more than billboards, a place to dump your talking points and say, “hey listen up and read this…” Rather they became the cornerstones of virtual communities. Communication was two-way and spirited. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter ruled the day and it was the first time ‘we the people’ via iphones, Blackberries and RSS/XML feed readers controlled our own information spigot rather than a nightly news producer at the BBC or NBC showing an 8-second clip of the day. The ability to see all candidates’ full speeches, town hall meetings and appearances transformed the election and the electorate.

    That is where the bar is raised for the UK election in 18 months’ time. Will the electorate here demand the same seriousness? I do not see the Tory re-assertion of their power and rise as a fait accompli. They are just as ripe as Hillary Clinton was for over-reaching and assumption. The question is can and will candidates here resist the tendency (egged on by back-benchers during PM’s Question Time) to reduce everything to a 1-line sarcastic jabbing wit-fest? I predict in this instant global communications arena, the British public will be as demanding, if not more so, that Messrs, Brown, Cameron and Clegg fully engage with them.

  • Obama, Plouffe, and Axelrod Smashed the Pyramid. Welcome to 2008. Central Party message and campaign control is forever dead. Team Obama placed, news, decisions and information in the hands of those who needed it most and trusted their supporters to run with the ball on their own. Yes mistakes and misstatements were made and the campaign never suffered from an over-zealous volunteer speaking from their heart about him. They would be taken aside quietly and given a clarification for the future but they realised more harm would be done dampening enthusiasm then if there were a few misstatements that everyone would so recognise and everyone moved on together.

    denis-campbell-2.gifObama for America was hugely decentralised and this campaign was always about the voter (the customer) and how to better embrace them and bring them across the finish line together.

    The McCain campaign was always about the candidate.

    This was a sea change. Obama said this election was about you and in his victory speech he repeated it and said we all need to work together.I predict a wave of people will follow him to Washington just as those did to follow JFK and formed the Peace Corps and other initiatives.

Coming next: how execution, execution, execution and results, results results… became universal yardsticks for measuring success.

Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell is a US journalist based in the United Kingdom. He contributes to newspapers and magazines, is a BBC Radio election commentator and publishes the daily e-magazine The Vadimus Post from the Latin Quo Vadimus – where are we headed and do we know why?

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