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In January, Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th president of the United States, but in getting there, he also notched several “firsts”: the first African-American Democratic presidential candidate; the first president to have a background in community organization; the first president to buy ad space in video games; and the first president to actively use social media to connect and motivate the American people. In their book Barack, Inc., Barry Libert and Rick Faulk (chairman and CEO, respectively, of social media startup Mzinga) explicate Obama’s revolutionary strategies. CRM’s Assistant Editor Jessica Tsai spoke with Libert about how the imperatives of running a winning campaign apply to running a business.
CRM magazine: The book was extremely timely—was it a mad dash to get it published the day before inauguration?
Libert: It was…. I had been blogging on our company Web site since spring about the fact that I thought this was a monumental change in politics, in which one of them would be the first social leader we’ve ever had in the United States. I don’t just mean presidential leader, but [a] social leader.
You could see the difference between McCain, who couldn’t find the Internet, [and] Hillary Clinton, who I really think should have won—again, this is just a social picture—because 52 percent of the electorate is women and I have two boys and they’re definitely not as social as their girlfriends are. She should have embraced social technologies and really never did. Barack, who was a huge supporter and user of social technology, [used it] to connect with 13 million members…in an online world.
CRM: What can businesses learn from it?
Libert: He’s not just revolutionizing his role, he’s revolutionizing all leadership roles…. Historically, businesses have a basic thesis: “Don’t take it personally. It’s just business.” [Obama’s] proving that that’s a big mistake, and it’s a terrible misnomer. If you fire someone, it’s personal. When you sell them a bad product or service, it’s personal. Or [when] you disappoint investors, it’s personal.
Companies and leaders like Donald Trump and Rick Wagoner of [General Motors] do us a disservice by arguing that it’s not personal and [they] don’t take it personally. Even when George Bush says, “I’m your Commander-in-Chief”—if I went home and told my wife I was her Commander-in-Chief she’d kick me out of the house. But that’s the way leaders lead.
Even CRM, [Obama] did it correctly. CRM is about how I [as the customer] choose to interact with you [as the company]—not how you keep track of my contact information.
When Obama came up on the train from Philadelphia [to Washington, for the inauguration], he said “I love you back.” Tell me how many leaders you know say, “I love you” to their own employees and customers.
CRM: Change agents are often the ones at the lower levels, in siloed departments. How do we motivate the CEOs?
Libert: Change is not going to happen from the bottom up. It’s got to happen from the top down. Right now, business is “for the leaders, by the leaders,” as opposed to “for the people, by the people.”
Companies that are going to be led in a grassroots environment…by using online communities are fundamentally going to be successful because constituents are going to feel personally connected to the leaders, personally connected to the business—which means they’ll be more satisfied that they’re being heard. Voice of the customer. Voice of the employee. Companies that think that social media is something that kids should do…[are] going to fail miserably in the next decade.
CRM: Once Gen Y gets to be the majority in companies, will everything just change naturally or will it require change now?
Libert: It requires [change] now. Some 70 percent of all employees are under the age of 30. Gen Y is in the workforce. They’re not the CEO, the board, the chairs, but they are the constituents [who] are customers, employees, and future investors. So if leaders can suggest, or believe, that Gen Y doesn’t know what [it’s] talking about, they’ve got it sorely wrong…Barack Obama had Chris Hughes [coordinator of my.barackobama.com]. Every CEO is going to need a social czar…not a secretary keeping track of his election dates.
CRM: How will Obama continue to use the personal ties he’s made?
Libert: He won’t sign any [nonemergency] legislation until he gives everybody in the U.S. five days to comment on it. That’s like the CEO of a company who says, “I won’t launch a new product, a new service, a new campaign without five days of review by the customer and employee.” That’s unbelievable, and you can make it all transparent.
Is he going to be perfect? No, he’s not from Marvel Comics. He’s not Superman. He’s just a human being, but at least he’s doing his best using today’s mental models and today’s technologies.
Every company has three objectives: to build its brand, to develop its people, and to generate financial results. He did that impeccably as a community leader, not as a business leader. I think the future of our leadership is community-based.
They’ll learn how to build their personal and business brands by being humble and showing humility, which he’s done, by partnering and leveraging their communities. He made $800 million by letting people help him be successful.
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