Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Front-Runner’s Fall: the Clinton Campaign memos

The Front-Runner’s Fall

If you haven't read the piece in The Atlantic about the internal workings of the Clinton campaign, you really should. Oh, not because it gives you a little thrill to have all your bad feelings against the Clinton campaign reaffirmed (if that was your wont) but because of what you can learn about basic lessons of management.

For me, especially if I put myself back in the strategic communications firm I worked in a few years ago, the story of the campaign's implosion was a textbook lesson of what happens when an organization A) fails to ensure proper values and strategy alignment among its teams, B) doesn't address bad information flow and C) lacks trust.

Not to sound all Fast Company, but values and strategic alignment is the glue that holds an organization together. In corporate speak, it's what folks talk about when they say they're 'on the same page.' Folks in suits talk a lot about 'being on the same page' but there is usually a big gap between where the Leader says they are and what folks on the frontline see. Say what you will about the GOP, in every single one of the candidates they run, values and strategy go hand in hand.

In the Clinton campaign's case, HRC and her staff seemed to come from totally different directions: Penn wanting to go immediately negative (which I'll note later), other key staff resisting, the Leader being conspicuously absent from the final decision. Did HRC really believe that BO was 'un-American'? I seriously doubt that. Yet, what made Penn think she'd be open to that? What values gap existed between them?

(And sharing the same goal does not mean people share the same values.)

My biggest takeaway from the piece was how important information flow is to any successful campaign (not just political campaigns, either.) The memos reveal how information was plugged, or viewed with distrust, at various points. Information on budgets, tactics, shifting electoral landscape - all, at some point, went ignored by key people after being floated 'up' or 'across' the organization from people on the frontline. As a result, the leader was left without the tools she needed to do the work she needed to do. Does this kind of isolation make a leader trust her team or does this make her assume more responsibility because she can't trust her team to do what it needs to do to deliver? And, in return, does a team look at their leader's withdrawal and respond positively or panic, withholding bad news and leading to more distrust?

High performing teams don't have these issues; they see and act (quickly) through the same goggles, acting with flexibility to good and bad environmental factors; ideas are evaluated on their value-addedness (is this idea going to enhance our mission and vision, stretch it or take us outside of it?); high performing teams act with autonomy but there's always an honest touchstone with leadership, marked by free flowing communication.

If only someone on Clinton's staff had read a few issues of the Harvard Business Review.
Reading the Atlantic piece, I was riveted. Reading Penn's memos where he suggested highlighting Obama's Otherness and 'un-American-ness,' I thought, 'Wow, he actually said it.' If we take his suggestion and pair it with his note that the campaign was trying to 'neutralize' race as a major factor, then we get a picture of a man with his head very far up his ass. You want to take 'race' out of the picture but you don't mind telling a whole bunch of black and brown people that a man of color is un-American.

Talk about problematic - and talk about an opportunity for the Dems to ask themselves if that kind of strategic thinking reflects the values of their party.

This piece also makes me hope the Obama camp will be careful of values/strategy misalignment, mission and vision creep, or perceptions thereof. (In other words, no more FISA or offshore drilling shit!) But I'm almost positive Obama reads the HBR. Right?

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