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What lessons can metalcasters learn from Obamas victory?

Jan. 16, 2009
There is no mystery to the technique: develop two-way communications, plan and organize well, and finance wisely.

Metalcasters can learn some valuable management lessons from the successful journey of Barack Obama, who started as an obscure back-bench state senator and rose to the White House in just 12 years. Here is why Obama has been successful, and how you can apply his disciplined methods to engage your employees in reaching your organizational goals of higher productivity and better profitability.

Obama overcame his minority status; bested his Democratic Party rival, the “inevitable” candidate (Sen. Hillary Clinton); and at last won his party’s nomination. Then, he achieved the real goal by out-balloting Sen. John McCain in the general election, winning 28 states with 364 electoral votes. Obama knew his goal and had the discipline to reach it.

What are your company’s goals? Have you ever disciplined yourself to list them on paper?

• One goal might be to keep your organization non-union, in the face of the looming Employee Free Choice Act;
• Or, your goal might be to achieve lower labor costs in coming union negotiations, as consumer demand and sales
volumes decline, and health care costs rise, lowering profit margins;
• Yet another goal might be to develop better cooperation with your employees, to achieve higher productivity, lower perunit costs, and level — or rising — profit margins:
• Still another goal might be some combination of the first and second of these, together with the third.

Obama achieved his goal — the Presidency of the United States — by out-planning, out-organizing, out-financing, and out-communicating his competitors. You can achieve your goals the same way.

Out-communicating — From the beginning, Obama disciplined himself to use a simple slogan, “Yes We Can,” which he repeated endlessly as a tag line to his quicksilver message, “Hope and Change.” It gave his audiences confidence that whatever current concerns they faced, Obama could make their “hope” for “change” become a future reality, with their help, dollars and votes. What “hope” and “change” meant to his each of his millions of listeners was as varied as their individual circumstances and thoughts about foreign, domestic, or economic policies. Listeners could read into this message whatever they wanted, and could believe that their individual expectations could be met.

Out-planning — From the beginning, Obama planned his primary and general election campaigns carefully, using skilled, experienced consultants. They researched his possible opponents carefully and crafted a disciplined campaign that emphasized their weaknesses while building on his strengths. It mattered little to the listener whether Obama had experience or whether he could handle foreign or domestic crises. In his vague (but optimistic) message they heard what they wanted, what they hoped for, and what they believed.

Out-financing — Obama reneged on his promise to accept $70 million in federal funding for campaigning after his grass-roots fund-raising efforts raised more than $600 million from individuals and organizations whose goals he promised to support. He used this money to blanket the nation with his message. His skillful use of the Internet helped him to reach, to register, and then to energize young, unaffiliated, and disaffected voters.

Out-organizing — Obama also used his considerable funds to set up local campaign offices where staffers responded quickly to any message delivered by an opponent, and to pay for print, radio, television commercials keyed to the local issues and voters. This discipline enabled him to drown the messages of his opponents about his past associations with questionable friends and (even more questionable) Chicago politicians.

Importantly, Obama listened. His campaign staff was highly organized, quick to channel local intelligence to national staffers for decisions on how to respond. He used focus groups extensively to calibrate responses for each region, tying them to the overall themes — “Hope and Change,” “Yes We Can.”

Obama achieved the Presidency by blanketing the United States with his well-disciplined, -organized, and -communicated message and campaign. Learn from him, and engage your employees to support your company’s goals. Here’s how:

Communicate — Create a simple slogan or theme that unites you and your employees against a common enemy. The enemy might be tougher competition, high operating costs, the threat of a union, or the threat of a strike. Like you, the employees’ income, their job security, and their futures depend upon being part of a highly productive, profitable company. Discipline yourself to communicate with your employees, not at them. Listen as much as you talk. Create a simple twoway communications system to hear their concerns, their thoughts, and their ideas about improving productivity. Then respond, in a meaningful way.

Because employees usually speak more frankly to an outsider, and because some experts are able to discern better what employees mean, many companies enlist consultants to help devise and launch their communications programs, which from the employees’ point of view adds credibility to the effort.

Plan — You know the issues facing your company: A competitor’s newer, modern plant, or the date your union contract expires. Or, if your communications are effective, you know when employees are dissatisfied enough to consider union representation. Don’t wait until your communications effort will be transparent. Discipline yourself to start it now.

Finance — A simple communications program is inexpensive and effective. How much do brief, monthly meetings with employees cost? How much time does it take your secretary to write and publish a modest newsletter, emphasizing your responsiveness to employee concerns and ideas for improving productivity? Discipline yourself and your managers to follow the Three-Foot Rule: Anyone working within three feet of a machine or process knows more about it than anybody else, so listen to them. The time spent listening is often less than the value of their ideas to reduce scrap, boost productivity, or improve customer service.

Organize — High profitability and job stability are the results of disciplined executives. Discipline yourself to develop managers by teaching them to focus on key objectives while delegating busy work to subordinates. Discipline yourself to teach first-line supervisors how to organize their department, rather than trying to manage the behavior of their workers. Discipline yourself to develop formal evaluation and compensation programs, so employees at all levels know what is expected of them, and reward or sanction them accordingly. Finally, discipline yourself to develop group pay-for-performance programs, like Gainsharing, to build strong labor/management bonds that motivate and compensate employees for working together and with management to achieve high productivity and profitability goals.

There was nothing mysterious about the way Obama reached his goal. He did it with discipline: developing good two-way communications (listening to and responding to voters’ hopes and fears); planning, organizing, and financing. Similarly, there is nothing mysterious about using these methods to engage your employees to meet your company’s goals. It takes a little work – developing, communicating, planning, organizing, evaluating, and doing … and self-discipline to get done what needs to be done, rather than putting it off until tomorrow.

Aren’t metalcasting managers and executives like you paid to do that, anyhow?

Woodruff Imberman is president of Imberman and Deforest, Inc., management consultants. His writing covers management development, supervisory training, and group pay-for-performance programs, all for meeting company goals of higher productivity and better profitability. Contact him at tel. 847-733-0071, or [email protected].