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Six Leadership Lessons From The Presidential Campaign Trail

Aside from the mudslinging and name calling this election cycle, launching and running a successful presidential campaign has a lot in common with starting and running a business. Not only does it take considerable entrepreneurial chops—from raising and managing funds to building an organization from scratch—it demands many of the same leadership skills a president needs to draw on once in office. Here’s what the high stakes, breakneck pace, and unpredictable twists of the campaign trail can teach business leaders everywhere.

1. Plan Everything And Underestimate Nothing

Planning ahead for virtually every possibility can help campaigns avoid wasting money and getting blindsided by opponents. In a campaign, much of the planning goes toward legal resources and contingencies. Business leaders don’t have end goals as concrete as winning the presidency, which actually makes this even more imperative.

Start asking questions about your progress and objectives as early as possible, and revisit them continuously: What’s the one big goal your company needs to reach? And what are the shorter-term achievements you’ll need to win on the way before you do? A presidential campaign has a separate plan for each and every state, county, and city. Ideally, staffers and strategists know the rules, regulations, and voters in each and every one. That goes right on down to the volunteers at the front lines—who is doing what, when, and how come?

If you think coordinating your own staff is difficult, try this level of coordination across the nation with unpaid volunteers. There’s a very detailed plan, and everyone needs to be clear on the end goal. Your business is no different. Do you have a detailed plan, does your entire staff know and understand it, and are they fully equipped to execute their piece of it?

2. Find Advisers With Real Experience

It doesn’t matter which news channel you prefer to watch or listen to—you’ve seen past and present presidential advisers sparring over political ideas and strategic steps and missteps. These people have spent careers immersed in party politics. They have a network, a set of tactics, a track record of wins and losses, and a deep historical knowledge of what’s worked and what hasn’t—and they deploy all of that expertise to accomplish one thing: helping their candidate win.

Who is doing this for your business? Where is your all-star think tank or advisory board? Who are your coaches and what experience can they bring to the table? As a business leader, you need reliable experts on hand who are committed to what you’re trying to accomplish together. Let them do what they do best so you can focus on your piece of it.

3. Use Technology To Deliver Your Message

Politics aside, President Obama was the first presidential candidate to effectively use social media as a major part of his campaign strategy, which had an outsize impact on younger voters. Rather than writing off that demographic, he tapped into their potential. As a business, consider how you’re leveraging technology and connecting with younger users. No matter your product or service, no viable 21st-century company can afford to dismiss millennial and gen Z customers.

By the same token, none can do without a robust digital strategy, either. Marketplaces are too volatile and Internet-driven to simply draw up a business plan and execute it. Companies have to be responsive and listen, readjusting wherever necessary in order to connect with what people want and need, and the technological and data-based tools for doing that have never been more sophisticated or widely available.

4. Differentiate Yourself Early

Know your platform, and make sure it sets you apart. As a business, your constituents are like voters. You can’t please and appeal to everyone, so what segment are you going after? What do they want, and do they know who you are? Can they explain that to someone who doesn’t?

Think about any given candidate and you can quickly come up with at least two to three soundbites you’ve probably heard them say over and over again. Decide from the get-go on the value or idea that will resonate the most with your target market. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.

5. Know Who Will Hold Your Signs

At every rally or gathering a candidate puts together, there’s a backdrop of supporters holding signs and banners with the candidate’s name, and a catchphrase or two that says what they stand for. What does your company’s metaphorical sign say, and who will hold it up each and every day? Ideally, every employee will be a vocal advocate for your brand, customers, and vendors. If that isn’t happening already, it’s up to you as a leader to determine what your message is and who will stick up for it.

6. Learn Everything You Can—And Then Make The Tough Calls

Being a leader is never easy, and listening to advisers, employees, and customers takes work and patience. But campaigning politicians face a similar conundrum, trying to respond to the advice of strategists, the needs of voters, and their own guts. The key is to remember that the information available is always limited, even if it sometimes seems you’re up to your neck in it or, at other times, don’t have enough.

Few campaign decisions are made alone by a candidate. Each one is usually researched and discussed and researched again. Granted, you may not have the polling, statistics, and public commentary (so to speak) when making most decisions, but every business leader has the ability to ask stakeholders, do research, and crunch the latest numbers before making an informed choice.

The list can certainly go on from here, but for every entrepreneur, startup founder, and CEO from now until November, here’s a challenge: Imagine your company’s strategy as a presidential campaign. How would you differentiate yourself from the field of competitors, what would you look for in campaign advisers, and how would you position yourself to win?

Kristen McAlister is president/COO and co-owner of Cerius Executives. She has extensive experience in leading major acquisitions, sales, and operations initiatives with small and large privately held companies to publicly held international companies.

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