Lessons for today’s CEO from Barack Obama

Almost all organisations go through turbulent periods, during which their core capabilities are
severely tested. The turbulence may be caused by factors such as
significant events in the market-place, economic upheavals, dramatic
inflection points in the technologies that drive the business, sharp
changes in customers’ needs, game-changing strategies implemented by a
competitor, leadership upheavals within the organisation itself, and so

These periods can be called “defining moments” in a company’s
history — when the strategies and actions of the CEO, and the manner in
which the organisation aligns itself to the change strategies,
determine whether it can weather the turbulence and continue on its
growth path.

CEOs under pressure

This is a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty and
governments are trying to co-ordinate the timing of various financial
strategies, to maximise their beneficial impact worldwide. “Bailout”
has suddenly become the buzzword in business dailies.

The US economy is officially in recession, with negative
consequences for countries as diverse as India (primarily in the case
of its IT services industry) and China (for its manufactured exports).
Europe and Japan have slowed down significantly. Falling oil prices in
recent months have impacted Russia’s revenues, which are heavily
dependent on oil and gas exports.

Overall, popular wisdom has it that the global economy will
get worse in 2009 before it gets better in 2010 at the earliest. The
current period could well qualify as a “defining moment” for many
organisations, large and small, worldwide. On a much larger scale, it
could also prove to be a defining moment for many countries and their

Markets are shrinking, customers are cutting back,
shareholders are nervous, and CEOs are under pressure to “do something
different” to keep companies afloat. “This is the way we have always
done things here” is not acceptable anymore – look at the sharp
reaction to the CEOs of the US Big Three automakers using corporate
jets to fly to Washington to plead for bailout. “We need to change our
business model” is an emerging theme — except that most organisations
typically exhibit significant resistance to change.

Under these circumstances, the CEO has to step up and take
charge quickly. Here is where Barack Obama and his election campaign
come in.

Obama and change

The US President, Barack Obama, won his election on a simple and powerful message of “change”.

The context for this change was two-fold — growing opposition to
the Bush-era policies and actions both at home and abroad, and the
deepening crisis in the US economy. The US was beginning to experience
its own “defining moment”.

Given this background, Obama’s strategic intent is clear. He
wants to change the way the US is governed, and the way the economy is
managed; he wants to change the industries in which future jobs will be
created; he wants to change the manner in which the US responds to
environmental issues and global warming; and he wants to work with
other governments and countries in a collaborative fashion — and not
force US’ views on others by sheer muscle power.

Taken together, this represents a fundamental and strategic
change for the “American way” as a whole, both within the country and

If we look at the US government as an organisation, and Barack
Obama as its CEO, the shareholders are the US citizens. Obama has
worked relentlessly over the last one year on communicating his
strategic change message to all his shareholders, and the election
results show that a majority of them have aligned themselves to this

He realised the need for a committed and energetic
organisation at the grassroot level. He zeroed in on the young voters
(who were known, till then, for showing little or no interest in
politics) to be the “agents of change”.

Obama signalled his commitment to his change strategy by acting
quickly on the first step — the appointment of key members of his
leadership team — months before even assuming office. Hitting the
ground running, as he has done, is a message in itself — that the
situation is grave, and that there is no time to lose.

By appointing several knowledgeable but strong-willed people
to key positions, he has made it clear that he is confident about his
own leadership skills in managing a talented but disparate team. He has
also demonstrated common sense and humility in seeking expert help in
areas, which are not his forte.

And he stuck to his campaign and his theme in spite of
distractions, in contrast to John McCain, who suspended his election
campaign to make an abortive dash to Washington, when the $700-billion
bailout package came up for discussion.

10-point game-plan

The current global economic turmoil is forcing many
organisations worldwide to do some fundamental introspection, and draw
up their own strategic change maps.

If we now look at the critical role of the CEO in defining and
implementing such strategic change initiatives, there are several
operating principles in Obama’s election playbook that are worth

Analyse and understand the global and local context for change.

Tune in to shareholders’ expectations, frustrations and values. Ignore them at your own peril.

Take the time to formulate the strategic theme. This is the single most important step in the whole exercise.

Stick to this theme right through, notwithstanding distractions that are sure to pop up.

Create a strong leadership team, where each member brings “best-in-class” knowledge and wisdom to the team.

Learn how to manage a team which doesn’t always say, “Yes, you are right”.

Communicate — in a consistent and clear fashion.

Make smart use of technology to spread the message, but do not let technology become the message.

Comments :

2 comments to “Lessons for today’s CEO from Barack Obama”
The Logistician said...

Very nice piece. I was looking specifically today to connect with Indian bloggers, and came across your blog. I have some articles about our efforts to boost the economy here in the US, and the public's reaction to Obama, which you might find interesting. I enjoyed reading your piece. Thanks for sharing.

The Logistician said...

Apparently there is a tentative agreement about the stimulus package in Washington.

In my humble opinion, this bill, even if it passes, is problematic and undoubtedly will fail, but not for the reasons which many might think.

This economic situation is a big deal. Historically in society, when something is a big deal and potentially threatens the very existence of a nation (whether economic or otherwise), the citizens of a nation rally around the flag and join forces to confront it. That is not the case here.

There is no mandate here and this patchwork effort will continually be subject to criticism, whether fair or not. If I were Congress, I would return to the drawing board and come up with “something” which at least 75% of our elected officials could support with some degree of enthusiasm. We need that type of unusual leadership right now. We've seen for the past several years, in the case of Iraq, what happens when a country is significantly divided as to an approach taken to address a matter of national concern.

There at least ought to be what amounts to a consensus. The symbolism is huge.