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The Electrifying Textbook

The fanfare was intoxicating. A glowing governor, flanked by adoring aides and enraptured legislators, signed the bill into law mere minutes after the State Senate approved it by a razor thin 33-29 margin. Two days later, after a regional and national media torrent rained down praise on the governor for his inspirational politicking, it was time for the parade.

The Governor triumphantly marched past an estimated two million fans waving signs reading “Thank You, Governor!” and “Promise Kept.” The throngs, “chanted his last name, sometimes at deafening volume,” as the, “parade’s rock star,” strolled down 5th avenue. Beaming, the governor described the experience as “electric” (Bolcer, 6/26/2011).

This hero’s celebration reads like the embellished culminating scene in a clichéd leadership film. Leader rises to prominence. Leader faces defining challenge. Leader overcomes obstacles. Leader celebrates and teaches lessons learned to an adoring public. It’s the stale, yet reliable, hero’s journey. The attraction here, though, in Governor Cuomo’s Gay Marriage Hero’s Journey, is how closely life imitates art.

Governor Cuomo’s real life leadership and mastery of the micro skills of agenda mobilization earned him the subsequent fanfare; and as we all know, rivaling Oscar Wilde’s “life imitates art” maxim is the reality that things are often “easier said than done.” This is the story of how Cuomo embraced the textbook fundamentals of leadership to advance a Marriage Equality bill and win a hero’s welcome from the public.

Cuomo’s first fundamental skill was establishing style. As Michael Barbaro explains in his excellent NY Times postmortem on the marriage equity campaign, “the lobbying had to be done the Cuomo way: with meticulous, top down coordination. ‘I will be personally involved,’ he said” (Barbaro, 6/25/2011). The Cuomo leadership style was at its core, a directive leadership approach seemingly lifted straight from The (Bass) Handbook of Leadership. Cuomo emulated this style where, “leaders decide and announce the decisions to their followers” (Bass, 2008, 460). As his predecessor Governor Paterson explained, “[Cuomo] ran the whole process through his office, and that was nothing short of brilliant” (Grossman, 6/27/2011). Cuomo understood that a directive style was critical in the highly strategic legislative environment and fully embraced this fundamental leadership approach.

Next, Cuomo clearly got a hold of a copy of Get Them on Your Side and closely dissected the chapter on agenda and coalition formation. Evidently a devout scholar or leadership materials, Cuomo understood his marriage campaign typified the developer agenda category. “As a combination of a planning and overhauling [approach]… [Developers] are committed to staying on top of things—empirically, rationally, and incrementally (Bacharach, 2005, 46). Cuomo was going to overhaul centuries of state tradition but he was going to do it through meticulous, political planning.

After agenda classification, Cuomo shifted to coalition formation. First, he knew to, “highlight all the people who share [his] agenda” (Bacharach, 2005, 67). He understood he had the active support of gay-rights advocates and could deploy these allies as needed.  However, he directed five fragmented activist groups to coalesce into one streamlined New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition.

Understanding that money is mobilization in politics, Cuomo then pursued passive support from the upper echelon up Republican donors. These donors were sympathetic to the libertarian, social freedom legislation and Cuomo tapped them for financial fuel to power his campaign. Even if they weren’t directly pounding the pavement for his agenda, they still offered critical, passive support.

With this machinery, the governor chased down wavering legislators, shifting them from reluctant to active supporters with his intimidating credibility. He easily flexed this credibility with a barrage of mail and personal lobbying while exploiting strategic alliances with heavyweight constituents in swing senators’ districts.

Finally and most surprising, Cuomo solicited the weak support of his primary opponent: The Catholic Church.  He appreciated that, “they [would] likely be some of [his] strongest skeptics, so [he would] need to develop strategies to keep them from derailing [his] efforts” (Bacharach, 2005, 68). So the governor, a practicing Catholic, contacted New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and explained his case while inviting Church input into the bill construction. Effectively neutralizing his prime opponent, the Church found itself unwittingly co-opted into the coalition.

In the end, to complete his hero’s journey and slay the proverbial dragon, Cuomo veered slightly off textbook script. One vote shy of securing passage, Cuomo lobbied two fickle Republicans Senators for support. While both were sympathetic to the governor’s agenda, neither wanted to be pegged as the decisive “traitor” who pushed the bill over the top. So Cuomo, the shrewd Machiavellian, “informed both [senators] that another unnamed Republican would cast a yes vote” (Barbaro, 6/27/2011). This then delivered the final momentum the Governor needed and won him the weekend’s parade.

Ultimately, savvy leadership requires more than simple textbook analysis. The world is full of uncertainties and every leader benefits from a little supernatural luck on their hero’s journey. Nevertheless, Governor Cuomo on his road to legalizing gay marriage illustrated the power embedded in the micro skills of leadership. By establishing a vision, a leadership style, and a supportive coalition, he effectively executed his agenda. It may sound stale at times, but as Cuomo said, success can be an electrifying experience.

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Building Coalitions and Developing Personal Credibility

The art of getting things done is all about building coalitions, and the art of building coalitions is all about developing personal credibility and identifying the people you will try to get support from. You might be thinking, “hey I’ve accomplished all these difficult tasks! I’m home free, which way to Easy Street?”  Not so fast.

Now you have to justify to your potential allies the need to take action.  You have to persuade them that there is a need for action.  To do this, you are going to have to prove the timeliness of your ideas.  This is going to be a question of carefully selecting the best scenario to convince your  targets for initial support that the time has come to act. 

In trying to enlist people to join you in your effort, you should consider the four scenarios that you can use in making your case.

Rational Scenario: “Look at the numbers”

 By using a rational scenario, you present a logical justification for change.  Implicit in this argument for action is the assumption that you’ve arrived at the decision to take action through careful analysis, detailed cost and benefit projections, and a well-structured presentation of alternatives. You look at the numbers as they relate to money, time, and resources. Some might refer to you as “up-tight”. You prefer “thorough”.

A rational scenario is calculated. You have to quantify both the costs and the benefits, and then subtract costs from benefits. If the benefits outweigh the costs then you have a good reason for taking action. A rational scenario emphasizes the payoff to the organization, whether it takes the form of additional profits, a lower cost structure, or superior market position. You propose voluntary action based on sound data and logical projection. It is a great way to take raw emotion out of the equation but it also has its drawbacks. There may be a strong contingent of people within your corporation who disagree with the rational scenario. They will challenge your assumptions, no matter the strength or accuracy of your calculations.

Remember the problem of not having the “perfect answer.” There is usually not enough information, resources, or time to gather every last bit of data or conduct all of the analysis necessary to solidify an argument. In most cases, there are actually unquantifiable or subjective costs. Lastly, there’s sometimes a difference between the magnitude of the numbers and the meaning of the numbers. Certain costs may not be significant in dollar terms but are strategically important.

You may be most successful in using a rational scenario—“Look at the numbers”— to call for action in an organization with a strong planning culture or firms where rigorous quantitative analysis is required before any decision is made. It may work less well for you in mission-driven organizations—where qualitative factors often play as important a role as numbers. The rational scenario may falter in highly changeable situations where projections of future costs and benefits are difficult to quantify with any degree of accuracy—such as any initiative that relies on a forecast of the company’s stock price. In highly volatile times, a rational scenario is much less persuasive.

Mimicking Scenario: “Everyone’s doing it”

Where the rational scenario uses hard facts and logic, the mimicking scenario relies on visibility to reduce the perceived risk of the change initiative and to improve its legitimacy—“This has been done in other organizations, so we must do it, too.”  The “everyone’s doing it” argument may seem simplistic, but it is often quite a sensible response, especially in those instances when you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have the time or resources to experiment with an array of alternatives.  Why not hitch your wagon to what appears to be a successful best practice? Would you jump off a bridge if your best friend told you to? You might if your friend had double digit growth over the last 3 quarters.

Sometimes, mimickers will identify processes of key competitors that need to be replicated. Other times, mimickers will choose other organizations that have achieved “best-in-class” status for certain processes. Think about how many service organizations have copied Disney’s customer service processes and training as the gold standard for their own dissimilar industries.

The downside of mimicking is that in the context of uncertainty, it’s not clear what goals, products, technologies, structures, and processes are most appropriate.

As a result, many organizations often end up adopting a change by simply copying it, without any concept of its appropriateness or effectiveness. This goes a long way to explain organizational fads and fashions (e.g., re-engineering, zero-based budgeting, job enrichment, etc.)

The mimicking scenario is an easy target for critics. Some will call the initiative unimaginative. Others may thwart a mimicking scenario by examining the mimicked company’s stock performance. For example, how many organizations pointed to Enron as a bestpractice company for processes from innovation to business reinvention? Or, others who pointed to Xerox’s R&D activity as a best-in-class process. Despite the fact that Xerox may, indeed, have a world-class R&D activity, critics may point to the beating the company’s stock has taken over the last few years and ask, “Why would anyone want to mirror that performance?”

The mimicking scenario—“everyone’s doing it”— may work best for you in larger organizations and in planning-oriented environments. Larger organizations are more likely to feel an affiliation with other large, best-practice companies. Smaller firms rarely compare themselves to large organizations and value originality more. If you are a Traditionalist or a Developer, you may prefer to use mimicking as a justification for adopting a change strategy, as this justification has a visible end-point as a target—making it plannable.

Regulation Scenario: “They made us do it.”

Laws or regulatory changes occasionally require an organization to change its processes and/or the way it operates. Consider how units within a telecommunications provider needed to change when the federal government lifted restrictions on providing local and long-distance service. There are plenty of organizations that use regulation as a reason for change.

With a regulation scenario, there is a strong third-party mandate for change. It is not difficult for you to obtain information about rules and regulations particular to an industry to determine whether the regulations actually require changing operations. Though not always quantifiable, regulations are nearly always accompanied by a body of written documentation that can be easily accessed and cited when necessary.

Regulations are not always clear—and are subject to interpretation. Regulation-driven change frequently is tied to a time frame for compliance. People may say, “We don’t have to comply with that for another four years,” as a way of delaying the change effort.

You may find that using the regulation scenario—“They made us do it”—may often have limits.  Acquiescence to regulation and pressure does not mean that the organization becomes more effective. Rather, submitting to regulation may bring the organization into compliance with external governmental pressures, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that compliance serves the most efficient end of the organization. Many industries may see regulatory changes once every decade, while changes in their business take place annually or every couple of years.

Standards/Expectations Scenario: “People expect it of us”

Sometimes you may want to justify the need to take action on the basis of normative expectation.  What would the community expect of us as an organization?  What would the customers expect of us?  What would our colleagues expect of us?  When justifying action on the basis of the standard/expectations scenario, you are purporting to act in concert with the expectations of the greater community.  While you may recognize that in the short term, this may not be beneficial to the bottom line, you believe that taking action that meets community expectation will have long-term benefits, such as customer loyalty, community trust, etc.

Regulation provides an explicit measure to justify change, while standards or external expectations provide implicit reasons for change. When you use the standards/expectations scenario as a reason for legitimizing your efforts, you are not proposing that the organization has to do something, as much as you are suggesting that if the organization doesn’t do something, the organization will be at a disadvantage. Or, that if the organization does act, good things are likely to happen as a result.

This becomes most obvious in the public sector, when government factions are perpetually trying to justify taking action as a means of addressing the needs of others. In the public sector, officials are seeking the high ground of moral justification, maintaining that their actions are predicated on the very expectations of the public. For example, for a government to eliminate poverty or provide security allows the initiator of the action to say, “I am doing this because it is expected.”

Taking Stock

Mobilizing a coalition is all about your ability to gain legitimacy—within and beyond the organization.  People want to get behind an idea or a person who is going to win or, at the very least, is not going to look like a loser. It’s human nature, people love a winner. This early stage in coalition building is all about establishing your credibility and building the case that will move others to support your effort. Think of it as a foundation on which you are going to build your initiative.  Without a base of support, it is unlikely that you’ll ever develop a strong enough critical mass to push your initiative through.

Choosing the right strategy for gaining potential supporters involves one of three approaches.  You can try to utilize like minds, co-opt specific leaders, or incorporate groups.  To choose the right strategy, you’ll need to carefully consider the people you are seeking support from, their role or position in the organization, or the people they influence. Once you’ve gotten meetings with the people you need to get behind you, you need to make the right pitches.  Are those prospective supporters rational, data-driven people?  Or are they concerned with best practices?  You need to tailor each argument to address the concerns of your prospective supporter.  Your success—especially early on—will depend on choosing the appropriate scenario.

If you’ve done your homework right and executed it well, you should now have initial support or support your coalition and focus on getting the actual buy-in.


The Art of Campaigning

When we think of the concept of campaigning we often think of leaders standing on a platform heralding their unique virtues. We think of the old days of jumping from train station to train station–kissing babies, eating cheeseburgers, and watching a late night movie in the hotel room while reviewing tomorrow’s meetings.

And that’s exactly what campaigning is: long, hard, work. Ask anyone who has walked through the snows of Iowa or been caught in an ice storm in New Hampshire on a campaign trail.  But campaigning is more than that–it’s also a state of mind that essentially starts with a focused goal and the knowledge that you need to get people on your side in order to accomplish it.

Leaders in any setting enter a campaign mode when they have a focused direction which they understand cannot be achieved without rallying others to their position. The backbone of any campaign are the tactics that underline a leaders capacity to get people on their side.

Of late we’ve been rallying around the notion of change–change we can believe in, change for our times, change for our organization, change for the 21st century, and the list goes on–change is all over the place. In academia we talk about leading for change. Well, what other type of leadership is there–leading for holding things constant? Leading for doing nothing?

As political scientists pointed out years ago–leadership implies action or lack of action, it implies change or lack of change, as its focal point. This implies that the critical skills for change leadership is having the capacity to bring people to your position–it implies the capacity to enhance coalitions, lead them, and sustain them.

Point in fact, change leaders are running campaigns and this demands a vigilant attention to micro-skills that will keep people in your corner. It will demand immense interaction skills, superb negotiation skills, and yes, even in the work place–a cheeseburger or two.

Staying in a campaign mode is indeed exhausting–while you may not have to trek in icy New Hampshire a certain degree of awareness, a certain calculation, indeed a healthy bit of paranoia, is necessary.

So if you want to look to individuals who have led change don’t just look to Bill Clinton–look to his campaign manager Jim Carville. Don’t  just look to George W. Bush–look at Ken Mehlman. Don’t just look at Barack Obama–look at David Plouffe.

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4 Essential Leadership Traits: Empathy, Sincerity, Loyalty, & Follow Through

1. Empathy: Face it. As a leader you wake up, get dressed, and commute to work with a unique set of important problems revolving around your head. No one else on your team has your identical problems but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own universe of difficulties and troubles. As a boss it’s hard to be pick up on the problems your staffers are having since your busy and concerned with other things. However, as a leader it’s your lot to try to understand every angle.

In some retail organizations, like J-Crew, corporate managers are forced to work on the sales floor for a week or two before they are allowed to sit behind their new desks. The practice is repeated throughout various organizations because it’s supposed to force managers to be empathetic towards the problems a regular staffer confronts daily. It works.

A leader should know the nuts and bolts of every job that is being performed by her staffers in order to relate to its difficulty or recognize when an employee is incapable of his duties. Empathy can only come from understanding the true nature of the work and the difficulties it creates. Next time you get upset with your employee for taking his time keying in 100 pages of email addresses–ask yourself, “how long would that take me?

2. Sincerity: Fake greetings, forced smiles, and feigned attention are the tools a poor leader employs daily. It’s easy to be fake–however it’s even easier to notice when someone, smiling at you with set teeth, is pretending. A good leader must always try to be sincere and earnestly believe in what she says and does. Anything less and people will begin to pick up on your lack of respect for the team and the project at hand.

The only way a leader can become sincere, or work towards sincerity, is by speaking the truth and acting in accordance with his true feelings at all times. However, we live in the real world and sometimes people can’t afford, at times, to be completely forthright with their ideas and thoughts. In other words, a leader is forced to be plastic and fake on occasion. Fine. Just make sure you know when your doing it, why your doing it, and know when to turn it off. Faking understanding and listening can be easy but it will only lead to bigger problems down the road. So the next time someone asks you how you’re feeling, don’t be afraid to say, “…like hell.”

3. Loyalty: Leaders aren’t worth anything without their team. For that statement to make sense in reverse, leaders must be loyal to their staff.

Loyalty comes in different sizes and when managers are told to be ‘loyal’ to their staff they aren’t expected to dramatically take bullets for their co-workers. Instead, leaders should protect their team from other departments and companies with vigor. Such loyalty will breed a sense of importance within the staff and compel employees to work harder for a larger good. Loyalty creates a irreplaceable bond that will ensure the reciprocation of loyalty.

Loyalty forces, in a way, a manager to look at his team as a condensed family and the mental analogy works on many levels but it should be used sparingly. Slow team members must be cut and others must be trained rigorously. Don’t force your loyalty unto a team that doesn’t yet deserve it. Loyalty can’t be forced and should only come after time, hard work, and patience.

4. Follow Though: The act of ‘following through’ sounds easier than it really is. Everyone, at one point or another has solid ideas, plans, and goals that they want to implement professionally. The truth is only a handful of people actually follow through on their agendas. The problem, people think, stems from the lack of charisma and lack of support they are able to acquire. The truth is neither are real obstacles towards helping you achieve your professional goals. See my posts on the subject here and here.

A good leader needs the ability to follow through on ideas in order to add value to her organization or team. A leader incapable of following through, continually, won’t be able to enlist support from his team or chase after bigger, more interesting, projects. Follow through is the one ability that makes leaders leaders; it’s a leaders true skill because it requires the organization of many different elements and the ability to get them all on your side in order to complete a goal. A leader who can’t follow through is a like a tennis player without a racket. It’s crucial that you are able to hit an idea home so that everyone on your team can feel a sense of accomplishment and success.

However, these traits are all meaningless if you don’t know your business!!!