Companies & Industries

Obama's First 100 Days: Evaluation Time?


Harvard's Michael Watkins lays out a framework for fairly assessing President Obama's performance

Posted on The Leading Edge: April 20, 2009 2:13 PM

As President Obama's first 100 days draw to a close, countless news organizations, pundits, and bloggers are gearing up to deliver their assessments. In fact, the media machinations are taking on the character of an arms race.

So here's my opening salvo. It's not (yet) an assessment of our new President's first 100 days, it's about how we should assess our new Chief Executive. In this post, I'm going to lay out a framework for assessing Obama's transition into his new role. In subsequent posts, I will use this framework to render my judgments on how he has done so far.

How should we assess President Obama's transition into his new role? I find it most useful to evaluate executive transition effectiveness along three distinct dimensions:

Securing early wins (short-term). Did the new leader build credibility by scoring early victories while avoiding or mitigating losses?

Laying a foundation (medium-term). Did the new leader lay a solid foundation for accomplishing A-item priorities during the remainder of his first year?

Articulating a vision (long-term). Did the new leader begin to articulate an inspiring vision for what he will accomplish during his full tenure?

A weakness in any one of these dimensions would signal trouble ahead; when an executive has serious problems in all three areas, that's a sure sign of a transition going off the rails. Let's take each one in turn.

Securing Early Wins

The first and most important goal for a new leader is to build personal credibility and create some momentum. In the earliest days, this means making the right symbolic gestures. Then it's about identifying and securing some early wins. Above all, it's about avoiding early losses.

In evaluating President Obama along this dimension, the questions we should ask are:

Has he avoided early losses that damage credibility and deplete political capital?

Has he built personal credibility or has he undermined his standing with key stakeholders including the public, Congress, the bureaucracy, and key officials at the State and local levels?

Has he secured early wins in areas that stakeholders see as important?

Laying a Foundation

Early wins help a new leader get off to a good start, but they are not sufficient for continued success. New leaders must also begin to lay a foundation for the deeper changes they plan to make. The process is not unlike the launching of a multi-stage rocket into orbit; securing early wins (or avoiding early losses) lifts a new leader off the ground, and efforts at foundation-building provide the thrust necessary to achieve orbit and avoid falling back to earth.

In evaluating President Obama along this dimension, the questions we should ask are:

Has he appointed a strong team of officials to develop his policies and press for their implementation?

Has he laid out a policy agenda that addresses the right issues, and that balanced ambition with realism?

Has he begun to build the supporting alliances he will need to secure passage of key enabling legislation?

Articulating a Compelling Vision

Finally, new leaders must begin to articulate a compelling vision for what they will accomplish during their tenure in the role. For President Obama, this means defining and communicating what he hopes to accomplish during his first full term in office. The vision must be one that pulls people forward and energizes them to make the right sacrifices for the greater good. Critically, it must be balance inspiration with realism.

In evaluating President Obama along this final dimension, the questions we should ask are:

Has he begun to define and communicate a compelling vision for what he will accomplish during his first term?

Does his vision strike the right balance between ambition and realism?

Will it help to rally people to make the necessary shared sacrifices to move the country forward?

In my next post, I will focus on evaluating President Obama on the first dimension: creating momentum by building personal credibility and securing early wins. I would welcome your thoughts about how you think he has done so far.

This post is part of a special package on HarvardBusiness.org examining Obama's transition into the Presidency. Click here for the BusinessWeek Special Report: The First 100 Days for Business

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