Barack Obama, Master Salesman
"Creative things have to sell to get
acknowledged as such. Steve Jobs didn't really set the direction of my Apple I
and Apple II designs but he did the more important part of turning them into a
product that would change the world."
When Larry the Cable Guy - yes, Larry the Cable Guy -
comes up with a juicy line, he'll congratulate himself by saying, "Now
that there's funny, I don't care who you are."
A similar notion came to me when I was reflecting on
Barack Obama's improbable presidential campaign, thinking, "Now that's
impressive, I don't care who you are." And I could add another Larry line:
"You don't have to be the Head Cashier at Walmart to understand
What got me thinking about the presidential campaign was
Richard Wolffe's new book "Renegade - The Making of a President." And
while it was surprisingly unlively reading, Wolffe's insider review offered up
wisdom we can all apply, including lessons from Obama as master salesman.
After all, think about what community organizers do -
they sell citizens on getting involved, then sell governments on providing
services/resources to those citizens. Obama's boss in those days, Jerry
Kellman, said of the job, "If you can't get people to tell you their story
and build a relationship around the story, then you're never going to be any
good in the long run." And
young community organizer Obama soon learned of that part of gathering stories
was telling his own. He wrote, "And they'd offer a story to match or
confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together."
Any skilled salesperson can see him or herself in that
remark. You listen. You learn. You find the point at which interests overlap.
You create a new story, a future story, about what you can accomplish together.
It wasn't that Obama was selling breakthrough ideas; in
fact, Wolffe writes, "His policy ideas were Democratic boilerplate."
No, he was selling a relationship, the idea of working together. And he sold
that idea by being a master of empathy. Campaign advisor David Axelrod said of
him, "We'd be in deep Southern Illinois, in a place closer to Little Rock
than Chicago, and he would do extraordinarily well. He'd say, 'These folks are
just like my grandparents from Kansas,' and talk about how his grandfather was
in Patton's army. He can go into an inter-city church and understand their
experience. And he can go into a tony suburban area and understand them, being
a Harvard Law guy."
Later, when the presidential nomination was his, he could
sit down with Hillary Clinton supporters and tell them they "...are not
alone in drawing inspiration from her campaign. My own daughters now take the
possibility of a woman being president for granted in a way that they might not
have, had she not run." No wonder her supporters couldn't stay mad at him.
And while he was publicly disagreeing with General
Petraeus about Iraq war strategy, he was publicly empathizing with him:
"In his role as commander on the ground, not surprisingly, he wants to
retain as much flexibility as possible. If I were in his shoes, I'd probably
feel the same way." The salesman disagrees by agreeing, by understanding
self-interest and redrawing it.
Obama understood what the great salespeople understand:
you take the past to the future. You hear a story, then tell a story, then sell
a story; you sell a better future, together.
Obama the boss.)
Dale Dauten is the founder of The Innovators' Lab. His latest book is "(Great)
Employees Only: How Gifted Bosses Hire and De-Hire Their Way to Success"
(John Wiley & Sons). Please
write to him in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th ST, 15th Fl, New
York, NY 10019, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2009, King Features
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