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SOTU for CEOs: More like Jobs, less like Obama

Jeffrey D. Porro
Jeffrey Porro writes speeches for corporate and nonprofit executives. He blogs at Tough Talk for Hard Times.

At about 10:20 pm EST last night, an army of bloggers, reporters and assorted chatterers took to their keyboards or microphones to start analyzing how well President Obama did on his first State of Union. In so many of these analyses, the central concern is whether the president did a good job laying out a vision of where he wanted to lead the country. It's no secret that neglecting what the first President Bush called "the vision thing" can be a fatal political error.

But as Steve Jobs showed us on the very same day, vision matters in business too. When he revealed the iPad tablet yesterday, he wowed the crowd not only with a new gadget but a vision of how we might interact with the online world in the future.

Jobs might have an easier product to sell than Obama -- a "magic" tool versus serious reform -- but the point remains: Leaders, whether in politics or business, must communicate a vision that sticks. For the CEO, this means effectively reaching the groups most important to the survival of the CEO's company -- employees, analysts, stockholders, customers, regulators, and the press.

The vision thing is especially important in times like these, when CEOs of major companies are dropping left and right -- last year the C-suite changed hands at Bank of America, GM and MySpace, among many others -- and those that remain are often expected to lead ambitious turn-arounds. Just as this State of the Union will be judged against how well President Obama confronted the major challenges before him, so a CEO who can communicate a vision can convince key constituencies that he or she has the right leadership in place and deserves time to make change happen.

Whether your company is large or small, here are three points to know about presenting your vision in compelling way:

1. A laundry list is not a vision. Just listing the changes the CEO is planning will not inspire anyone or convince stakeholders that the company is in good hands. The same rule applies to presidents, and on this score Obama's speech last night did not come out well. Similarly, GM's Henderson may have sown the seeds of his own downfall last June, when he gave one of the most important press conferences in his company's history. It was supposed to be an opportunity for Henderson to communicate how GM would rise like a phoenix out of bankruptcy.

Yet as you see in this video clip, all he really did was list the things GM was going to do, using a litany of phrases that every executive uses to promise change: "a leaner, quicker... more customer-focused....completely product-focused company." Blah, blah, blah. As Phil LeBeau of CNBC wrote at the time, "How can the American public look at this today and say, we have confidence that this is, finally, GM getting it right?"

2. At important events talk about the company's overarching goals and describe how you plan to reach them. Sounds obvious, right? But watch this clip of Yahoo's former CEO Jerry Yang, trying to explain his company's new strategy to a friendly interviewer: Yang is hesitant and unsure, focused on the micro-level, as if he hasn't quite worked out the strategy in his own mind. A few months later, Yang out was out as CEO.

3. Appeal to our better selves. The most effective visions inspire, moving employees to work hard, investors to stay the course, customers to keep buying. When Gail McGovern became president of the American Red Cross in June 2008, she faced one of the toughest turn-around challenges ever: the easiest problem he organization was how to close an operating deficit of $209 million within two years. In a speech last year at the National Press Club, she laid out the specific steps she was taking, but wrapped it around a new vision, asking listeners to imagine "a new era of volunteerism and service, where a culture of service extends from retired baby boomers to tomorrow's teens." Today McGovern is leading her organization's response to the Haiti earthquake, among many other causes.

A terrific vision won't guarantee a CEO survives, of course, just like a dazzling presentation from Steve Jobs doesn't mean we all have room for tablet computing in our lives. But in the tough environment for both political and business leaders, continuing without a strong vision, and the ability to communicate it, leads down a short road.

By Jeffrey D. Porro

 |  January 28, 2010; 5:37 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership skills Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Leaders we need, with "minds afire" | Next: Why 'management leverage' is replacing financial might

Comments

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President and CEO are very different jobs. A CEO can assume that most of the people who work with him (for him) have the same goals in mind. For a president, at least in our time, he has to assume that approx. half the people who's help he needs are actively trying to thwart his plans. These are very different environments are require very different approaches to the "vision thing".

Posted by: rpvt | January 28, 2010 9:41 AM

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