The Stimulus Package, Leading Change, and President Obama

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Within days of taking office, President Obama began to reach out to both parties in Congress. He invited elected officials to the White House, and he personally went to Capitol Hill. As soon the $800 billion stimulus bill passed with only a handful of Republican votes, some mocked these outreach efforts as failures. But the skeptics got it wrong.  And I believe the President knows they got it wrong.

Building relationships is often difficult, but it is especially hard when there is such a strong history of division not only between our political parties, but between the members of the executive and legislative branches. Plus the Stimulus Package is almost incomprehensibly large in dollars and scope. It’s easy to resist. These two forces were almost certain to trump the impact of a few meet-and-greets, a Super Bowl Party, and some policy sessions.

Nevertheless, the President’s outreach was a wise move. Some suggest that the heavy lifting is still to come with regard to turning the economy around. Strong working relationships will matter plenty in the coming months and years.  He is wise to begin to rebuild damaged bridges early.

I doubt that President Obama will give up on his efforts to reach out to others. (His desire to be inclusive seems to be in his bones.) But other leaders might see the events of the past week as proof that it’s no use to even try to rebuild toxic relationships.

Here are some things for those leaders to consider:

Avoid a “well-we-tried” mentality. We reached out to the union, to management, to the field, to the other company involved in our merger, etc. and it didn’t do us any good, so let’s stop this nonsense. When trust is historically low, people will be suspicious of you. A single meeting or two will not reverse years of distrust. But, it’s important to keep trying. As the playwright Samuel Beckett once wrote,  “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” When the relationship is critical to your success, you have no other reasonable choice.

Start Small. President Obama really didn’t have a choice. He had to start big, so the smart money would say that building relationships wouldn’t pay off in the short term. If he had the choice, he probably would have started with something smaller. Something that was less controversial. Something that didn’t put political careers on the line. Something less costly. These smaller projects can allow you to build relationships away from the glare of the press or headquarters.

Reinforce Reinforce Reinforce. Even when you are able to begin to rebuild a relationship, people will still be skeptical. The smallest sign that you are not acting in good faith can cause a cloud of distrust to block progress.  Think of couples where one partner has been unfaithful. The marriage may survive, but it could take years (if ever) for the injured party to fully trust his or her partner.

I am certain that the President will get advice to not waste time courting adversaries and push ahead, regardless of what others think or believe. You may get similar advice. Ignore it. I wish you well.