Sunday, January 24, 2010

Listen, Learn, Lead

Many successful senior executives approach difficult challenges by using a process called Listen, Learn, Lead. They get in conversations with key players; ask a ton of questions; learn the critical issues facing the business; and then start to lead that business and those players down a new road to success.

In the process, they build up their knowledge base, solidify critical relationships and display credibility because their solutions are grounded in fact and experience rather than presumptions and projections. One might argue that President Obama used the Listen, Learn, Lead approach leading up to the latest troop deployments in Afghanistan. Dick Cheney characterized it as dithering yet his favorite general David Petraeus called the process thorough and necessary.

Which brings me to the heathcare debate and the President's agenda post the recent Massachusetts Massacre. Many are starting to write his political obituary as an ineffective one-term president. That's probably premature. After all, Reagan, Carter and Clinton each had similar job approval ratings at the end of their first year in office. Reagan and Clinton managed to right their ships and sail off to second terms, Reagan in an historic landside. Carter, oh well...

President Obama is now getting advice from all and sundry on how to right his ship. Go pick fights with Wall Street because everybody hates those guys anyway. Ram healthcare through before Scott Brown can park his pickup truck in the Senate garage. Dump healthcare entirely and focus on jobs and the economy.

How about this Mr. President? Try: Listen, Learn, Lead again.

First, to free up some of your time, tell Joe Biden that his sole assignment between now and November is helping businesses create jobs and lower the unemployment rate. Give Joltin' Joe an 8.5% target unemployment number and a blank check to broker fast-track deals with Congress on tax cuts and targeted incentives for business to wake up the economic engine in this country. He'll love the gig and he might make some headway while you hit the road again.

Then, go throw some Tea Parties of your own around the country. Not in all 52 states but three to five in each region of the country between now and Opening Day of the baseball season. Just don't serve tea. Maybe Coke, Pepsi, Burgers and Brats instead. Make it more a talker and tail-gater at the VFW Hall rather than testimonials and tea at the Junior League. No booze. Arguing healthcare and jobs sober is wild enough.

Make each session three hours long for an audience of 150 people with a meet and greet before and a long goodbye and some gladhanding afterwards. Don't pre-select the audience. Make it some kind of fair lottery process to get a ticket and make sure that the screening process to get into the hall is as stringent as possible so we don't have a repeat of some of the security snafus of recent memory. If the Salahis show up, tell them the party's over.

Avoid making it a politically correct audience or an audience of ringers. Let your presence (and the Secret Service) handle the screamers and yellers. Chances are you will end up with strong opinions and a few loud voices, but you may end up with a respectful group of concerned Americans willing to talk.

Bring a prominent Republican and Democrat from each state along with you as your partners. Make the setting in the round with the three of you on stools in the middle. Then you and your partners play facilitator and draw out the audience. Avoid the politician's pattern of making a long self-serving statement followed by a leading question. Try playing reporter for a change.

Neither you nor your partners can advocate for any agenda in the session. Your sole jobs are to listen and learn and walk away with a new or renewed understanding of the voice of the people. Your pledge to the participants at the end of each session is that you and your partners are going to go back to Washington and work on solutions - together. You seal the promise with a handshake at every session.

I know you probably think your administration has been there and done that on this sort of approach, but this time it's different. You and your administration are being viewed broadly now as out of touch. In response you have sent out a legion of fairly ineffective communicators on your team to talk at us - not with us. You are pushing us, not persuading us. You are advocating with agendas, not convincing with arguments. You are leading, without listening.

As a result, an adminstration that was swept into office on a wave of populist change (or so it seemed) is now portrayed as a bunch of paternalistic Ivy League elitists who wouldn't know a boilermaker from a Beaujolais.

I know this may all sound hokey to you but give it a try. In the time it takes Joe Torre to see what kind of team he has on the L.A. Dodgers for the upcoming season, you and your partners from both parties can get a fresh read on where the country's head is on the key issues. You will also call the opposition's bluff by getting them to put some skin into your game for a while.

A few caveats if you take up this challenge:

  • Televise the entire tour on CSPAN
  • Drop saying I and My on tour - try using We and Our
  • You and your partners can only question and listen
  • Except for Secret Service protection, no entourage
  • Go on TV and report what you all learned
  • Attack the (low-hanging fruit) issues you heard on tour
  • Draft a joint legislative agenda and pursue it together

Most of your advisors would say this Listen, Learn, Lead approach is a waste of time or mere window dressing. Yet, you were elected with a promise to try to change the political dynamic in this country - to get beyond partisan rancor and bring us together. In spite of that pledge, we are mired even deeper in the Advocacy Abyss and drowning in discord.

In business, people of all political stripes find ways to solve incredibly difficult problems in part because they are all committed to a shared purpose - generating profit. In politics, we appear unable (at least at this point in our history) to solve problems together because we have lost the commonality of our cause. We have lost our ability to talk together, to reason together, and to work together. Yet in business, we can. In crises, we can. In communities, we can.

Why not stop being the leader of the people for a few weeks, eat a slice of humble pie and return to being a servant of the people. If you listen and learn, you will lead more effectively because there's a better chance we'll follow you.

Have faith in us. We're the ones who put you in the office you now hold. It's not about you. It's never been about you. It's about us - all of us together. You said it yourself - that what faces us are not Republican or Democrat problems, or liberal or conservative problems - they are American problems.

At tour's end we can all join in a chorus of Yes We Can - and mean it this time.

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