How to Use the Best Political Strategies and Tactics in Business

senator Ted Kennedy, Kennedy Carter, Edward Kennedy, Senator Edward Kennedy, Kennedy Brothers, MassachusettsNOTE: This post outlines the ideas behind a book I am beginning to write on how political strategies and tactics can and are being used by the business world. The book would be like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, except instead of using the spread of venereal disease as a metaphor for business, it would use politics (draw your own conclusions about similarities between the two). I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts & suggestions in the comments at the bottom.

In the fall of 1979, Jimmy Carter was in trouble.

Inflation was in the double digits. Interest rates were through the roof.

Drivers were waiting for hours in long lines at gas stations around the country just to fill up their car tanks with gas.

As President, Carter was getting pummeled in public opinion polls.  In June of 1979, polls showed that Carter’s favorability rating was at 28 percent.

All of this was creating an opening for challengers in the 1980 Presidential election, and during 1979, members of Carter’s own party were considering whether to take him on.

For months, the speculation was that Senator Ted Kennedy would mount a challenge.

Kennedy was the last remaining Kennedy brother from a political dynasty. His older brothers John and Robert had served as President and run for President, respectively. Ted had served in the U.S. Senate for 20 years, amassed a record, and was ready for a move up.

But then Kennedy did something that took the legs out of his chances of becoming President.

Find Out What Kennedy Did and Watch the Video of Him Doing It

On October 12, 1979, Senator Ted Kennedy sat down for an interview with CBS correspondent Roger Mudd. With the primaries a few months away, Kennedy had not yet announced if he would challenge President Carter.

Everyone wanted to know: would Kennedy run? Would the last remaining Kennedy brother challenge a sitting President in his own party?

Mudd asked Kennedy why he wanted to be the next president of the United States. Kennedy began:

Well, I’m — were I to make the announcement and to run, the reasons I would run is because I have a great belief in this country. That it is — there’s more natural resources than any nation in the world; the greatest education population in the world; the greatest technology of any country in the world; the greatest capacity for innovation in the world; and the greatest political system in the world.

It didn’t get much better from there. Kennedy’s answer made no sense. It was rambling and inarticulate.

The fallout was swift and harsh. Journalists, voters and commentators rightly questioned how he could really want the job if he couldn’t even answer the question why he wanted to be President.

The issue was simple – what was Kennedy’s purpose in running for the highest office in the land? Voters wanted to know, and Kennedy did not have an answer.

Why Every Organization Needs a Well-Stated Purpose

Kennedy’s campaign floundered before it even began because Kennedy could not articulate his purpose.  People did not know what Kennedy stood for, which meant donors, volunteers – and ultimately voters – did not have a reason to embrace him.

Kennedy’s campaign, and in turn all political campaigns, demonstrates how difficult it can be to sell a product – even a well known product – in a competitive market.

Campaigns are essentially microcosms of all of the issues a businesses face – on a compressed timeline. They must make the sale, but that’s far from where the comparisons end.


  • Like businesses, campaigns have a product (the candidate or ballot initiative), and buyers (the voters). They must articulate a message and communicate what that product is and its benefits in a way that cuts through the clutter.
  • Cash flow is often tight, especially at the beginning. Stakes are high, and competition is fierce.
  • Like business leaders, candidates must know how to network effectively – they live or die based on relationships.
  • Campaign managers must deal with scaling their organization quickly, including recruiting, training, and managing a workforce of staff, often across multiple offices, counties or states.
  • Campaigns frequently struggle with discipline, budgeting, monitoring and controlling cash flow, innovation, and differentiation.

The good campaigns do these things well. The bad ones are relegated to the dustbin of history.

Like businesses, a campaign can be brought down or up by its people.

“Campaigns are no different than any other organization,” wrote David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign. “They are collections of human beings. We [strove] to build a campaign where people did not scream at each other, where performance was measured objectively, where crisises were dealt with calmly, and where the team was there to serve the cause, not personal ambition.”

These political issues do not go away once a candidate is elected. There is a great deal of overlap between political strategies and tactics in the campaign world and in the world of governing.

By studying good campaigns and good political leaders who handle these issues deftly, there is much any business can learn.

Neal Gottlieb, Three Twins, Three Twins Ice Cream, organic ice creamNeal Gottlieb is one such example. The founder of Three Twins All-Organic Ice Cream based out of Petaluma, California, Gottlieb has overseen the company’s growth from one small scoop shop in 2005 to nationwide distribution and dozens of workers today.

In comparison to Ted Kennedy, Gottlieb has no problem defining Three Twins’ purpose. “It’s about authenticity and empowerment and business practices that make people feel good about the business, supporting local agriculture, and buying land with the purchase of each pint,” he told me.

Gottlieb goes so far as to say defining the business purpose at the outset helped dramatically with attracting customers and an energized and committed workforce. “It’s a great tool in attracting customers and attracting great team members who are just as passionate about the business and its future as I am,” says Gottlieb.

Gottlieb’s ability to articulate Three Twins’ purpose may not be the only reason for its success, but without such a clear purpose, one wonders if Three Twins would be where they are today.

How Business Owners Can Learn from Politics

Fortunately, new business owners don’t usually have to sit down for a 60 Minutes interview when they are just starting up their businesses. They aren’t put under a microscope like Ted Kennedy was.

But that doesn’t mean a business owner can ignore his business’ purpose.

In an era of limitless choices and competition, a business with purpose is powerful. A well-stated purpose gives consumers or clients a reason for choosing to support a particular business.

Today, if consumers don’t like who they are currently buying from, they can switch – often with “two clicks of the mouse,” as author Peter Shankman told me recently. All that competition means buyers need a greater reason to stick around.

Purpose is just one example of how political strategy can serve as an analogue for business. In fact, there are many, many more.

What Politics Teaches Us About Business

Nearly every metaphor for business success that you can think of has been used as the basis for a book: athletics, military strategy, nature, religion, war, coaching. You name it, it’s been done.

One very popular book even used infectious disease as a metaphor – comparing the rapid spread of a sexually transmitted disease in an urban area to a business that achieves sudden and dramatic success. I’m referring to The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a wonderful book in which Gladwell drew the connection between the spread of syphilis in inner city Baltimore and the sudden popularity of the Hush Puppies shoe brand. (For those of you who haven’t read the book: I am not making this up.)

Thousands of books are written every year on politics; and thousands more on business. But rarely does one bridge the gap, and make connections between the two. That’s what we aim to do here.

Consider, for example, the story of a little known first-term Senator who decided to throw his hat in the ring for his party’s nomination for President. He entered the race late, had little name recognition beyond political circles, and had never built a national campaign operation.

His opponents had broad name recognition, national operations and a head start.

I’m speaking, of course, about Barack Obama. In hindsight, we know his strategy was successful, but back in 2007 and 2008, there were vocal critics who said he was doing it all wrong.

You could very easily replace “first-term Senator” above with many upstart, disruptive companies, from Apple to Netflix to Kickstarter.

For companies like these – or better yet for small companies that are the “Apple’s” of tomorrow – the political campaign metaphor is instructive.

In the early spring of 2008, the Barack Obama campaign was in a neck and neck race against Hillary Clinton’s campaign to scoop up state primary contests and secure the Democratic party nomination.

Barack Obama had recently won the Iowa caucuses using a highly unorthodox strategy of empowering volunteers and pouring money and resources into the state field organization. It was a model they were replicating from state to state.

Then came South Carolina.

The Palmetto State is not known for doing things the way everyone else is doing them. It was a state that continued sending former segregationist Strom Thurmond to the U.S. Senate well into his 90s, after all.

Barack Obama was the first African-American major party candidate with a realistic chance to secure his party’s nomination for President.

Before the South Carolina primary, Obama and his campaign staff were told in no uncertain terms that their field organization-focused strategy would lose. And that was from their supporters.

Writing in his memoir of the race, The Audacity to Win, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said that numerous high-profile elected officials in South Carolina put heavy pressure on Barack Obama and the campaign to do things the way “they had always been done.”

This included, apparently, engaging in a bidding war with other Presidential campaigns to line up local power brokers to go on the campaign payroll so that they would deliver their allies’ support on election day.

But the Obama campaign refused. It remained disciplined and committed to its strategy. In the face of withering scrutiny, national media glare and incredibly high stakes, the campaign refused to blink.

As a result of the South Carolina strategy, Barack Obama won the state by 29 points.

In the 2010 book Great by Choice, author Jim Collins describes a disciplined, committed approach very similar to Obama’s South Carolina strategy. He coined the term “20-Mile March,” a concept he borrowed from the legendary explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole.

In 1911, Amundsen was in a race to reach the south pole with fellow explorer Robert Scott, whose expedition ended in tragedy when he and his crew got stranded on its return journey.

Collins observed that Amundsen’s successful strategy was due, in large part, to his ferocious commitment to marching 20 miles per day, every day, no matter the weather conditions. Even on nice days, Amundsen led his team approximately 20 miles per day.

Scott, by comparison would go 70 miles one day, then collapse exhausted and only manage 10 miles the next day. There was no discipline. The strategy – or lack thereof – wore out his team and led them to disaster.

Collins used the “20 Mile March” term to refer to a guiding, disciplined strategy, and notes that successful companies take a similar approach. Great by Choice profiled approximately a half dozen very successful companies that used their own version of a 20 Mile March to reach their own versions of the pinnacle – sustained financial success.

The Obama South Carolina strategy was a 20 Mile March – a disciplined, committed, and focused ground game.


How to Take Political Skills and Put Them to use in Business?

There is a revolving door in politics.

Politicians and political staffers may be running a campaign or writing laws one day, then using those same skills (such as how to network at an event) and strategies in the business world the next.  I’m one of them.

I started my career working in the Clinton White House as a Writer in Presidential Letters and Messages, before moving on to writing speeches for the Governor of California.

Today, I work as an attorney, working closely with businesses and entrepreneurs who can use many of the examples I witnessed and lived through in my earlier career.

The worlds of politics and business are more intertwined than ever. Campaigns are being run like businesses, and both officeholders and senior staffers are going straight to high level positions on Wall Street and with Fortune 500 businesses.

Others are working at startups or starting their own businesses. Still more are helping grassroots advocacy groups or nonprofits by using their political skills and know-how in a different, but related, way. For example, in both the political world and the world of business, it is important to know how to network for business – whether “business” means bringing home votes or bringing home clients, customers or revenue.

Here are just a few high-level examples of individuals who took their political skills and applied them to the world of business:

  • Long before he became President Obama’s first Chief of Staff and later Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel served as a Deputy Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House. Following that stint, he joined the investment banking firm Wasserstein Perella, According to the New York Times, his job was to “bring in business and seal deals.” He reportedly worked on eight deals over two and a half years, the two biggest of which involved politically connected utilities, according to the Chicago Tribune. Emanuel made $16.2 million during that two and a half year period.
  • Paul O’Neill served in the Veterans Administration and Office of Management and Budget during the 1960s and 1970s before being appointed CEO of Alcoa Steel in 1987. He famously led Alcoa to a sustained period of dramatic success by focusing the company’s efforts not on improving profitability, but on the very governmentesque policy of improving safety at all of its plants. That core focus led to a waterfall of better habits across the company and sustained profits for the company’s bottom line.
  • Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, was Chief of Staff to then U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, before taking her skills to Google and later Facebook as COO.
  • Dan Siroker served as director of analytics with the 2008 Barack Obama Presidential campaign, using specialized technology to make a fundraising behemoth. After the campaign, Mr. Siroker  started Optimizely Inc., an online business based out of San Francisco that sells software similar to what helped the Obama campaign.


Why Am I Writing This Book?

I’m writing this book because it’s the kind of book I’d like to read. The topic also gets me excited.

I believe I can marry interesting stories with practical advice to create a book that entrepreneurs will not just want to read, but to implement.

At its core, I believe the lessons that would fill this book would help people like my clients and other business owners, both small and large.

If nothing more, it would be interesting to hear about people who have learned skills in politics – from branding to discipline to crisis communications – and then applied these same skills in business.

I am already doing interviews, and the conversations I’ve had so far show great promise.

Who Is the Audience For this Book?

You may be wondering who would buy this book?

The ideal audience for this book would be entrepreneurs who also have a bit of political junkie in them.

I should note: this would not be a partisan book. I plan to write it from a non-partisan perspective – looking solely at the political tactics from an analytical perspective for their practical value.

Then again, I don’t think you have to be a political junkie. After all, you didn’t have to be a “fan” of infectious disease to enjoy The Tipping Point.

I hope just about anyone who likes books by Dan Pink, Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, or Chip & Dan Heath would be interested in buying a copy of this book.

What Do You Think?

Enough from me. I would love to get your feedback on these ideas.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.