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What CEOs can learn from Barack and Mitt

While politicians may be an unlikely source for best practices, CEOs can learn a few lessons from candidates on how to engage a key stakeholder: employees. The political best practices can be boiled down to three tips: 1) Avoid flip-flopping, 2.) Act like a hedgehog, & 3.) Create a community of interest

Communicating to a large, diverse and often global workforce is no less challenging than a hotly contested national election. And the stakes are just as high. As many studies have shown, strong employee engagement is linked to robust productivity and firm performance. Gallup estimates the cost of disengaged employees in lost productivity is $370 billion per year in the US alone. And Towers Watson research indicates that high engagement companies have operating margins almost three times higher than those with a largely disengaged workforce.

Why we hate flip-floppers

How do successful politicians win over the electorate? An NPR story described research that identified the three key factors listed above. First and foremost, politicians need to realize why we hate “flip floppers.” According to research from Johns Hopkins University, our brains crave predictability. Making subconscious predictions allows us to perform a multitude of hum-drum tasks like opening a door or walking up stairs. After many millennia of living in groups, we’re especially attuned to the predictability of other people. That’s why our brains produce a burst of pleasure-inducing dopamine when a prediction comes true. Evolution has hard-wired us to admire consistency, especially from our leaders.

Our hard-wired distrust of flip-flopping is why it’s so important to have consistent and insistent messaging when communicating to employees. This is especially important for CEOs, whose every utterance and action is scrutinized by employees, much like a political candidate. But it’s also essential for managers and supervisors, the most trusted source of communication. The messages need to be carefully developed and aligned with the enterprise brand story and desired culture so they will withstand the test of time. Certainly, there are many times when new messaging is not only desirable but necessary. However, shifting messages too often, especially those related to a core value, comes with a price—mistrust. As George H. W. Bush discovered to his lasting regret, a message such as “Read my lips; No new taxes” will be remembered.

Another way to reinforce consistency within a firm is to align recognition, rewards and performance reviews with desired behaviors and values, a critical component that is often overlooked. For example, firms need to rigorously evaluate managers on how well they communicate with their teams. This type of alignment is not easy as indicated by a recent survey of 36,000 employees by the Boston Research Group, which found that 41 percent of CEOs believed they rewarded people based on values while only 14 percent of other employees agreed.

Why we prefer simplicity

Being consistent is only table stakes. We also crave clarity and simplicity. This can be seen in University of Pennsylvania research highlighted by NPR, which examined the ancient Greek aphorism: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Leaders who are hedgehogs simplify a complex world into a few big ideas and an overarching world view. Leaders who are foxes, on the other hand, have multiple and sometimes contradictory goals and ideas. Who is better at governing? Researchers collected more than 28,000 predictions by political leaders over a 20-year period to gauge effective decision-making. The finding: foxes’ predictions are more accurate, which indicates they are better at governing. But hedgehogs with clear, simple ideas do better during campaigns. In other words, the best politicians govern like foxes but campaign like hedgehogs.

Our yearning for “hedgehog communicators” highlights the need for CEOs to take the lead in reaching employees with a clear and simple point of view—even if they think like a fox. Bill Clinton, a policy wonk at heart, displayed this skill during the recent Democratic convention when he boiled down complex campaign issues into an easily digested point of view.

CEOs also need to use creative techniques to capture employees’ attention. In today’s social media universe, employees want convenient access to information in multiple channels and formats. They also need to hear messages conveyed in easy-to-grasp narratives that take advantage of storytelling techniques. Like FDR and Ronald Reagan, CEOs need to tell a good story with heroes and villains, a dramatic turning point and a satisfying outcome.

Why we cut slack for those in our community of interest

If people hate inconsistency, why do politicians get away with flip-flopping? A study by Howard University explains. As described in the NPR story, students were asked to evaluate the behavior of an imaginary political fundraiser named Mike, who crashed into a telephone pole after drinking too much. A month later, Mike went on the radio and preached about the dangers of drunk driving. Is Mike a hypocrite or a changed man?

The answer depends in large part on whether Mike is a member of your political party. When people were told Mike was a member of their party, only 16 percent found him to be a hypocrite. When they were told Mike belonged to an opposing party, 40 percent detected hypocrisy. In other words, we cut some slack for those who share our passions and social allegiances.

While many voters have a strong affinity to their party, most employees are not similarly engaged with the workplace. In fact, a recent global survey by Towers Watson found that almost two-thirds of employees were not fully engaged. How can CEOs help create this sense of engagement? One important step is to tap into a higher-order purpose that brings the firm’s vision, mission and values to life. Research shows that employees want to feel they are part of something that is bigger than themselves. Barrack Obama leveraged the power of a higher-order purpose during his 2008 campaign, focused on “Change We Can Believe In.” Employing a much different political philosophy, Reagan generated a groundswell of political fervor in 1980 with his theme of “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Compared to Reagan’s rhetoric, George H. W. Bush’s campaign theme of “Steady Leadership in Times of Change” sounds tepid at best.

Are employees inspired by their firm? Many CEOs would say yes. The Boston Research Group survey of 36,000 employees found that 27 percent of CEOs believed employees were inspired by their firm—but only 4 percent of employees agreed. Perhaps the most notable example of a CEO with an inspirational vision was Steve Jobs. As Wired said, “Jobs wasn’t just a savvy businessman, he was a visionary who made it his mission to humanize personal computing….and forever altered the language of computer interfaces.”

CEOs also need to recognize the needs of employees may have shifted with the uncertain economic times. A Towers Watson global survey in 2010 found that employees increasingly value leaders who connect with the workforce on an emotional level. When employees were asked what they value most in senior leaders, many more cited “soft” virtues such as trustworthiness (79 percent) and caring about the well-being of others (67 percent) as compared with managing financial performance successfully (42 percent).

Presidents who establish an emotional connection have a proven track record of getting elected. Clinton has the ability to convey empathy, which helped him retain voter support during the depths of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Reagan established a connection in a different way—with a sunny optimism and likeability that earned him the nickname of the “Teflon President.”

Just as Regan and Clinton had their own style, CEOs need to find the approach that fits their personality. The former CEO of Campbell Soup, Doug Conant, wrote in his book Touchpoints about making a tangible, meaningful connection with employees and others by writing 10 to 20 handwritten notes every day – 30,000 over a 10-year tenure as CEO.

Richard Price, head of Mesirow Financial, recently described in a speech how he connected with employees by being honest about his difficulty in dealing with the sudden death of long-time friend and co-worker Jim Tyree, who he succeeded as CEO. Price was open with Mesirow employees about consulting with a psychiatrist to work through the difficult mourning process for his friend.

Regardless of the approach, generating engagement in the workforce is not an easy task. As with any good political campaign, polling is critical for tracking progress and making mid-course adjustments. Ongoing measurement of employee engagement through regular surveys is essential.

Five key steps for CEOs

How can CEOs take a page from successful politicians?

  • Be a visible champion with a clear vision that taps into your firm’s higher-order purpose and helps to establish an emotional connection with employees.
    • Communicate simple and consistent messages that are aligned with your enterprise brand story and desired culture and prepare your managers and supervisors to cascade the same messages.
  • Capture employees’ attention by using storytelling techniques and leveraging multiple channels and formats.
  • Ensure consistency across the organization by aligning recognition, rewards and performance reviews .
  • Measure employee engagement and adjust your tactics to improve your results.

By taking these five key steps, CEOS can channel their inner hedgehog, avoid being perceived as a flip-flopper and create a community of interest in the workplace.


Jim Holland is a senior vice president in the corporate practice at Weber Shandwick Worldwide. Before joining the firm in 2003, he worked for 20 years in corporate communications for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, where his responsibilities included internal communications.

His experience includes writing hundreds of speeches on complex policy issues for senior Fed officials, including Alan Greenspan, and 15 annual reports. His commentary was recently published in American Banker.



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