Leadership Lessons from a Presidential Campaign Manager

David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, addressed the German Project Management Forum in Berlin yesterday via satellite. I was busy translating for colleagues who couldn’t keep up with his (for non-native speakers) slightly too fast delivery. I’d no time to take notes, so this is just a a rough summary. The speech was his analysis of how he managed the Obama campaign in  2008, what worked and what worked less well. He did a nice job of indicating how the principles that worked in his political context could also transfer to other project contexts, such as the business world.

The keys to success outlined in the talk were:

  • a definition of success. Presidential math is simple: you need 270 electoral votes; however, figuring out from which states those votes will come is not so easy. They had a clear idea on this. And also a clear idea about why Barack Obama was running for president.
  • a clear strategy for achieving that success. This contrasted with both he Clinton and McCain campaigns, where strategy changed frequently. This led to confusion in the campaign and reduced effectiveness.
  • making sure that all staff and volunteers understood the goal and the strategy, so that they didn’t get thrown by media turbulence. He was worried that he was sending too much information to the volunteers via mail; it turned out they wanted more. In the presidential phase of the campaign, they sent about four mails a day, on average.
  • flexibility in local implementation (Colorado is not the same as Florida).
  • clear metrics and targets for people and giving them the necessary authority to reach their targets.  People regularly received clear feedback, the discussion being based on the targets and support to get back on track, if people weren’t reaching their targets; a readiness to replace people, if they showed no improvement after being supported.
  • Listening to your people, not just talking to them. They can deliver great ideas, you just need to listen.
  • They also decided it was vital to have a high-quality web presence. It wasn’t enough that the site be better than those of the other candidates; they wanted to be able to stand comparison with google, amazon, cnn or yahoo. The site was the hub of the campaign and allowed the staff and volunteers to coordinate local activities on a stae and community level.
  • A consistent message across all platforms. People pick up their information in fractured ways these days; just accept it and make sure you send the same message on all channels at the same time. People will piece it together and it gets across.

He also spoke openly about some of their mistakes, e.g. the mishandling of the Ohio and Texas primaries. If they’d picked up wither one, they’d have been able to close out the primary season much earlier. They also spent too little time on internal communication in the early stages of the campaign. They realized the importance of this and corrected this problem later on. David stressed the importance of not getting sucked into devoting all your energies on reaching the goal: it’s important to make sure you reserve time in your schedule for  communicating with staff – keeping them up-to-date with your thinking and listening to their ideas. Indeed, almost all the improvements to the campaign came from listening.

During the question and answer session, the value of the campaign web site to the presidency became clear: the President can get his message out to 13 million people by email; something he does on a regular basis. David also said the decisive moment in the campaign was when Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin. Although this was mocked by the US media at the time, it delivered a string message to potential voters that the US had a politician who could reach out to the world and repair America’s standing in the international community.

The part I found most fascinating was his body language and gestures during the speech: blend out the skin color, and it was really as if  President Obama himself was delivering it!

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