In my blog “What a Startup CEO Can Learn from a Presidential Candidate," I compared being a candidate running for the President of the United States to that of a CEO of a startup company. Although they are in different fields---one in politics and the other in business---there are quite a few similarities between the two, such as they both start out leading a small team, work tirelessly for several years, and, with few lucky breaks, hope to win big---one being the President of the United States and the other taking his company to an initial public offering (IPO) like Google and Facebook. Both have to thread a needle to get to the top,
But to achieve success, both leaders not only have to develop a winning strategy, execute flawlessly, adapt quickly and handle adversities, but also become adept at communicating a vision, persuade others and get them to act. In order for people to trust a leader in any field, the leader has to sell himself as the one who can help them realize the shared vision.
However, once the leader starts his journey, he has to be very careful of not falling into a trap of being an everyman. He has to act and appear like a leader to make himself look big and his organization and purpose even bigger. As Lee Atwater once said, "perception is reality." This so true in both politics as well as in business.
To get a better understanding of leadership in action, I take a look at the differences in style of campaigning in the 1960 Democratic primary between between then Senator John F. Kennedy and Senator Hubert Humphrey, as described in the book by Theodore H. White titled, “The Making of the President: 1960”. Both candidates wanted the Democratic nomination. Kennedy focused on the big picture (already acting like he were a President) during the campaign, whereas Humphrey presented himself as an everyman. This is not a bad strategy if you are running for a local office or even Congress, but not for the President of the United States. People generally elect a candidate for the President whom they perceive as someone that exudes leadership by focusing on the big issues facing the country, not the one who is consumed with their local issues.
In a business to business (B2B) sales opportunities a CEO has to be very careful of not getting involved wit the details since these deals are very complex; there is so much involved in winning a B2B sales deal such as the complexity of the solution, understanding the needs of the customers, politics, decision making process, timing and budget. With so many moving parts, a CEO can easily get bogged down and get easily distracted from his main responsibility, which is to run and grow his company. Furthermore, the CEO risks spreading himself too thin and make the company look smaller. Consequently, CEOs' can put the company at a big disadvantage when targeting an established company for business where they would be competing against much stronger competitors. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the CEO to hire a competent, experienced sales professional who is comfortable driving sales in a startup environment. The CEO should have the confidence in his salespeople, so that the CEO will only get involved in a sales opportunity under the direction of a competent salespeople to advance the sales process.
A startup today typically has between 6 to 9 months to succeed. If it doesn’t gain traction in that timeframe, it will most likely become a zombie company and eventually be shut down.
The zombie state is also known to afflict lot of presidential campaigns in that they also have a very short time frame (before and during the primaries) to gain traction to avoid becoming a zombie campaign and also shut down. The other thing a presidential campaign must avoid is to adopt a defensive strategy early on like Rudolph Giuliani (ex mayor of New York City) did in 2008 when he was running for the GOP nomination. His strategy was to not compete till the Florida primary. However, by the time the Florida primary came around, his campaign was in a zombie state and died there. To win, you have to compete hard, smart and early. If you don’t do that, you start losing time, focus, energy, money and, most important, momentum.
During any arduous endeavor, there comes a time where a key decision has to be made early that either will result in a win or a loss. Here is what the Kennedy campaign did early during the primary season in 1960 to win West Virginia that a CEO of startup can learn from when his sales team faces a critical situation on a sales deal early on during the startup phase.
After winning the Wisconsin primary the Kennedy team was very confident that if they win the West Virginia primary they will garner support from other power brokers around the country to forestall a floor fight at the Democratic convention since they would have the necessary 761 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. They could not risk the nomination going to the convention floor where anything could happen.
The Kennedy team was confident of an easy win based on early polling in West Virginia where Kennedy was beating Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota by a comfortable margin of 70 to 30 in the largest county (Kanawha county) of West Virginia. But this turned upside down three weeks before the West Virginia primary as Humphrey was now winning with the margin of 60 to 40. When the Kennedy headquarters inquired, from their the West Virginia advisers explained that the reason for the turnaround was that people now know that Kennedy is Catholic in a state where 95% of the population is Protestant and only 5% Catholic.
Kennedy Team, led by Lawrence O’Brien, Director of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and future NBA commissioner, and Robert F. Kennedy, campaign manager, quickly organized a small staff and volunteers on the ground in West Virginia. They developed a plan to cover the state by reaching out to all the local political leaders to get a sense of where their candidate stood and get the pulse of people’s mood on the ground.
When they discovered that the religion issue was hurting John F. Kennedy’s prospect of winning in West Virginia, they determined that this is something Kennedy needed to address directly. To put this issue behind them, they developed a strategy where Kennedy would address this issue once and do it in a form of a sit down interview with Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.
In the interview, Kennedy explained that, if elected President, he would be taking an oath to the Constitution by placing his hand on the Bible. If he broke the oath, he would not only face impeachment, but it would be a sin against God. To keep the message simple for the voters, Kennedy pitched the whole religion issue as a choice between tolerance versus intolerance. By voting for him they would be voting for tolerance and by not voting for him, they would be voting for intolerance.
The strategy worked and Kennedy won the West Virginia primary and went on to easily win the most of the remaining primaries and secured the Democratic nomination at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles.
The lesson CEOs can take away from Kennedy’s example is to hire well and then get out of their way and let them do their jobs. Kennedy let O’Brien run the campaign operation in West Virginia, since, being on the ground and working with local advisers, he had the best information on what should be done. O’Brien only involved Kennedy when there was no one besides the candidate who could neutralize the thorny religion issue. The Kennedy team did not become unsettled and have the candidate fly all over the state to address the religion issue to persuade people. That strategy. during the primary, would have made Kennedy campaign appear rattled by the religion controversy and also make Kennedy not look presidential. It probably would have hurt the Kennedy brand of being calm and under control. In addition, the media would have focused on their being panicked by the religion issue which would have hurt their image.
Kennedy team decided to address the religion issue once, do it well and do it with maximum publicity. Kennedy did exactly as his team suggested and removed a potential obstacle that could have easily derailed his campaign early. With the right strategy driven from the ground by a competent operator, he did not have to worry about securing sufficient delegates to avoid a floor fight for the Democratic nomination. He had Lawrence O’Brien on his team whose judgment he trusted and won.
1. The team was led by Lawrence O’Brien in West Virginia who assessed that the situation there did not look good for their candidate.
2. The Kennedy team went with Plan A which was to cover the state with Kennedy operatives and volunteers to get the message out.
3. When Plan A did not change the polls, they quickly developed Plan B where President Kennedy had to directly address the religion issue to the voters..
4. The Kennedy team decided to address the religion issue once, do it right and gain maximum publicity so they don’t have to revisit the issue again.
5. Kennedy team developed a simple message that would resonate with the voters: Frame the issue as tolerance versus intolerance.
6. Kennedy prepared and handled it masterfully and the polls started to swing towards Kennedy and started gaining momentum.
7. Kennedy won the West Virginia primary with a strong organization executing on the ground and the candidate coming in to address the religion issue that was hurting his chances in West Virginia and securing the Democratic nomination.
8. The main lesson to takeaway for a CEO or a politician: Fight hard, fight smart, fight early and fight together as a team.
In the next blog titled, "How to Apply A Lesson from John F. Kennedy for Startup CEOs" I look at a specific example on how 5ToolGroup helped a startup that had an excellent technology but had difficulty generating sales. In less than three months, we helped them close two deals by letting the CEO focus on product development and secure additional funding. As a result of this effort, we not only turned around a company that was struggling, but in the process helped increase the market valuation of the company.