One of the most important skills that leaders in any field have to master is people skills. They know that without people they can’t win; therefore, leaders have to be expert in starting relationships, nurturing them, taking care of the interests of the other party and gaining others’ support to achieve leaders’ key objectives. Anthony Tjan writes in his blog in HBR titled, “Becoming a Better Judge of People” that “being a good judge of people is difficult.” But leaders are very good at judging people quickly.
So, where can one learn about developing good people skills?
One of the best way to learn this skill is by studying how Presidents of the United States have done it to win the nomination of their party. Presidents, like other leaders in different fields, know that people come first. Mike Myatt writes in his Forbes blog, titled “5 Transitions Great Leaders Make That Average Leaders Don’t” that “leaders are nothing without people. Put another way, people will make or break you as a leader.”
In this blog, I look at President John F. Kennedy as described in Theodore H. White’s outstanding book, “The Making of the President 1960” to see how Kennedy masterfully used his people skills to win the Democratic nomination, defeating more experienced candidates like Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Stuart Symington.
Relationships are much more than just knowing people. You have to know the following: Who is the right person? What drives him to action? What kind of following does he have? What are his interests? Can you work with him? What will it take to gain his support? Leaders need to have a thorough understanding of people to win.
This became evident in 1956 when John F. Kennedy was contending against Estes Kefauver to be Adlai Stevenson’s Vice Presidential running mate. Here is what Robert F. Kennedy had to say in Theodore H. White’s book: “I remember a wonderful Maryland delegate and his wife. They were entirely friendly. They liked us. But Kefauver had visited them in their home. He had sent them Christmas cards. We couldn’t shake them. Believe me, we’ve sent out lots of Christmas cards since.”
John F. Kennedy lost the VP slot in 1956, but he was not going to let that happen again.
After the defeat, Kennedy realized that winning the Presidency came down to people and he had to come up with a game plan to secure the Democratic nomination for his potential run in 1960. He learned a harsh lesson of national politics, as White explains, “the root question of American politics is always: Who’s the Man to See? To understand American politics is, simply, to know people, to know the relative weight of names -- who are heroes, who are straw men, who controls, who does not.”
Kennedy started working on building relationships in a methodical manner and used the following five approach to winning through relationships:
- Identify true leaders by meeting with them one on one
- Understand that relationship building requires time
- Use flexibility in working the relationships since they are not all the same
- Isolate those who are not going to support you by working around them
- Consolidate support by winning
Kennedy felt that politics was all about people and how the people were led. Knowing the leaders who led people was key to political success. To identify potential leaders, Kennedy used his own judgment and not get influenced by others, media or public opinion, no matter how high in esteem they were held.
Kennedy especially paid close attention to those who were not well known, but, through his insights, knew that they wielded power through smarts, communication skills, and influence. Furthermore, he was quite pragmatic in that he specifically focused on leaders who could help him win the Democratic nomination. For Kennedy, results trumped reputation.
Kennedy proceeded to amass wealth of information about leaders across the party between 1956 till he announced his candidacy. Once he formally announced his entry into the 1960 presidential race, he assigned key people to work with the local leaders, develop strategy and mobilize support. Without having this critical information, Kennedy would not have allocated resources effectively; thus, a leader must know, though his own efforts, who is the one that can really help you win.
2. Build Relationship Early and Deep
Kennedy spent lot of time after the 1956 election traveling to all fifty states and finding out who the key leaders were based on the criteria he developed. Kennedy invested plenty of time giving speeches and campaigning for local candidates, thus, developing a complete understanding of the power structure of the Democratic party that he could later use if he decided to run for the President in 1960.
To really find out who is the person that wields power you have to be on the ground to get that information. This information can not be ascertained in the public since media can’t report on what anonymous people are saying about their elected leaders without facing a potential libel suit.
Kennedy’s relationship can be classified at four levels. At level one, Kennedy got to know the lay of the land on who the people were, their strengths and weaknesses. At level two, Kennedy developed warmth and connection to know who he can work with. At level three, Kennedy knew the interests of the local leaders so he knew how much he would have to give to get what he wanted. At level 4, Kennedy built bridges among the local leaders, who were silo’ed, to create a movement and in the process bring the people that followed these local leaders under one tent, led by a charismatic leader in Kennedy.
3. Be Flexible on the Approach
Kennedy learned through his time spending with local leaders that they are all different and the approach you use to win them over should vary based on the situation. Relationship building at this level is a one to one effort; there are no shortcuts or cookie cutter approach. Some leaders you approach based on what the leaders are really after that you feel is reasonable and deliverable. You have to ask whether the relationship is based on trust where you clearly know what test you have to pass to earn their support. It is important to know what the test is.
This is exactly what Kennedy encountered in his bid to win the Michigan delegates.
The three people that mattered in Michigan at that time were C. Neil Staebler (State Chairman), Walter Reuther (Head of the United Auto Workers) and Governor G. Mennen Williams. Kennedy formed a solid relationship and they all wanted Kennedy to support their liberal interests such as union rights and civil rights, and most important someone who could win so they have a seat at the White House. After Kennedy won some key states, he won these men over and the delegates they controlled.
In New York he had to use a different approach which I described below in the “Isolate and Conquer” section.
In other states Kennedy had to use his relationships to win handful of delegates. Though the number of delegates were small, but the effort was just the same since these delegates were very strategic since it prevented his opponent Lyndon Johnson from making the claim, by winning lot of delegates, that he had wide support in the mid west region. Kennedy wanted to pigeonhole Johnson as a southern candidate and show that Johnson had little or no support outside the South.
4. Isolate and Conquer
Kennedy faced a daunting task trying to win the delegates in New York, which was still the largest state in the union with 114 delegates. The state Democratic leaders thought that they would have strong grip on these delegates and be the kingmaker at the Democratic convention.
Kennedy quickly realized that New York was very fractured and rather than focusing on the city where the Democratic leaders resided, he brought in his closest advisors, including his father and started working New York from upstate instead from the city. The Kennedy team did not deal with the likes of Carmine De Sapio, boss of Tammany, until they had secured as sufficient delegates. They also knew that De Sapio controlled just one county and, even within that one county, he had to contend with the reformers. Kennedy realized that he was dealing with a person who really didn’t wield lot of power but pretended like he did. Kennedy quickly exposed this by working around him before De Sapio and his supporters found out. The defeat was such that the state Democratic leaders had no choice but to support Kenendy and became a non factor at the Democratic convention.
When you get support from few devoted leaders and start winning, you gain momentum and the dominoes start falling very quickly. Suddenly all other leaders wants to be part of the winning team. Relationships are a two way street. Unless there is a quid pro quo, you can’t win. Relationships can’t be in just name only but on action that both sides are willing to take for a common purpose.
Though Kennedy had lot of outstanding attributes of a great leader, but without great people skills, he would not have been the President of the United States. This applies to sales also. When you are in competitive sales situation, everyone of your competitor has what it takes to win the deal. Mostly it comes down to the one who the prospects’ have the best relationship will win. After picking the winner, the prospect will rationalize the decision with all sorts of reasons to justify the selection. If you want to win, you have to win the people skills game too.
1. Can people skills be taught or is it innate?
2. Do you think you need people skills to succeed in your field?
3. How do you use your people skills to win?
4. How important is people skills for success?
Keep the conversation going. Thanks.