Companies & Industries

Career Lessons from the Candidates


Take cues from the Presidential hopefuls—while avoiding their missteps—and apply them to your own career campaign

News analysts can't stop talking about the most closely followed Presidential race in recent memory. Nearly every day there's a new twist or side story to renew the media frenzy. What can business leaders and career-minded types learn from the candidates' widely varying approaches to campaigning (which clearly have had unexpected results)? See if our observations on the current and past front-runners' strategies and communication styles might serve you in your own race to the corner office.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI

Pundits have called Rudolph Giuliani's collapse one of the most stunning in modern politics. What happened? Among other strategic mistakes, the Giuliani campaign fell victim to the often-fatal career stumbling block of resting on a laurel—in Giuliani's case, September 11—way past the point of reason.

The other major career lesson to be learned from Giuliani's fall is that when a career-making goal is in sight—in his case, victory in the Florida primary—a professional can't neglect other responsibilities (read: earlier primaries and caucuses) to focus on the big prize.

JOHN MCCAIN

John McCain, the renegade Republican, blasted forward without the support of many of his same-side-of-the-aisle colleagues—a potentially risky strategy. On the plus side, McCain's do-it-my-way approach speaks to finding your own voice and creating a coalition of like-minded professionals as you march along your own career path. A big negative in this strategy is the potential for being viewed as an opportunist and a hypocrite when must-have allies (including right-wing hard-liners) inevitably come looking for deference from the candidate.

In your own career, you've got to look at the section of the Venn diagram where your beliefs and those of powerful people in your orbit intersect, and focus on those areas. Otherwise, you run the risk of being viewed as a traitor by the people who backed you early on.

HILLARY CLINTON

The all-but-anointed Democratic front-runner for 2007 and early this year, Hillary Clinton has had a series of stumbles: spending on frivolous campaign efforts, firing off verbal attacks that pack little punch, running on a sense of entitlement rather than accomplishment, underplanning her post-Super Tuesday campaign, and stubbornly sticking with a strategy that isn't working. The last three are the ones that could prove fatal to her Presidential ambitions.

Clinton didn't do much planning for post-Super Tuesday in the mistaken belief that all the heavy lifting would be over by then. How many professionals have made the same error, betting their résumés on a plum assignment that didn't come through? And forget your sense of entitlement. Whatever effort you've put into your own career thus far, it's essential not to send the message, "I've paid my dues. You owe me." Fair or not, you've got to prove your worth constantly and consistently.

Finally, don't fall victim to her last critical mistake: sticking with a strategy that doesn't work. In Clinton's case, that's repeating her mantra that she's experienced and Barack Obama isn't. That message isn't resonating with voters. What failing career strategy do you need to jettison?

BARACK OBAMA

The Illinois senator came from way behind to pull ahead of Clinton as the Democratic primary campaign hits a critical phase. Pundits have praised Obama's oratorical and organizing skills, appealing to young voters and disenfranchised Democrats tired of the status quo.

Could your career path follow an Obamaesque trajectory? Obama has contrasted his opponents' years of experience with his own relatively short tenure in the U.S. Senate, making a compelling argument for a fresh approach vs. traditional Washington operating procedure. For your personal career plan, Obama's emphasis on grassroots organizing (creating a base among your peers) may be instructive; on the flip side, his ties to a dishonored local businessperson may create heartburn for him along the way, reminding us that we are judged in business by the company we keep.

And while much praise has been heaped on Obama for his ability to inspire people, there has been just as much criticism about the lack of detail about what he plans to do if elected. It's great if you can get people excited about following you, but you have to do more than get them excited about the destination. You have to plan out the journey.

Are there career lessons for business types in the rise and fall of our latest crop of political hopefuls? You bet—and a few of the key points are these:

Don't rest on past, signal achievements: Memories are short in both politics and business;

Don't assume that your best-laid plans will pan out; anticipate failure as well as victory;

Don't overlook the small states—small issues—on your way to triumph with the big ones;

Don't send the message that your continued career progression is a foregone conclusion;

Don't forget that people judge you by your associates—more than you may think;

Don't expect people to follow you unless you give them a map for getting there.

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at businessweek.com/managing. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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