Have a Thick Skin and Three Other Things I Learned About Business From Democratic Presidential Candidate Martin O’Malley
(This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post)
Martin O’Malley is running for president. And of course his positions on issues affecting business and the economy are important. But for an individual business owner like myself, O’Malley — like most of the other candidates running for the country’s highest office — brings something else of significant value to us. Management experience.
Think about it — he was Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland each for eight years, and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University teaching courses on business and public policy. And of course, as president, he’ll be using all of these years of managerial skills to run the Federal government. I’m interested in what he’s learned. About people, and management and leadership. And in under a half-hour, here’s what I learned.
I learned that in business, you don’t manage people.
You accomplish things. “This is what I was told many years ago,” said O’Malley. “And it’s how I like to run an organization.” Everything is about having goals. Not a lot, but enough that are achievable. Of course you need great people to accomplish great things. O’Malley particularly looks for people who share his goals and are passionate about achieving them. He’s found that the clearer the goals, the easier it is to attract those individuals who want to be part of what he’s trying to accomplish. Resumes are important, but to him, more important are people with integrity and those that have the self-confidence to put it all out there. “The difference between a goal and a dream is a deadline,” he says. “And you want people working for you who understand this and are as committed as you are.”
I learned that the more information you share the better manager you’ll be.
I often run into clients and other small business owners who keep their company’s financial information — profits, margins, product costs — close to the chest, afraid that their employees will mis-use it. According to O’Malley, this is not the way to run an organization. For him, the nature of effective leadership has changed in the past 10 to 15 years. “Before a leader could sit at the top, with information at their fingertips a month or two before everyone has it,” he says. “But now, the modern collaborative leader not only has to understand the latest information but he has to make sure the rest of the team does so too.” In Baltimore, one of O’Malley’s biggest initiatives was to implement a program called CitiStat, a performance based measurement system for city services. The system made public the city’s goals and who was responsible for each. “Doing something like this required leadership to create a culture of achievement and a culture that celebrates open data and responsibilities without casting blame. This is not easy. But as a manager, its’ something you have to do.”
I learned that vulnerability is part of every leader’s job.
When you share data and when you make your goals public, you’re exposing yourself to your critics. Any political candidate knows that and over the years O’Malley has grown a thick skin about it. “Effective leaders have to be willing to make themselves vulnerable,” he insists. “You have to be willing to take the hits from the press and the public.” During O’Malley’s tenure as Mayor, he set a goal of cutting violent crime and homicides by half in the city, which made his administration open and vulnerable to criticism, particularly when the goal wasn’t met. “We got to 40 percent, which was a helluva lot more progress that had ever been made before,” he said. “But we still took our hits because we put ourselves out there.” To get results, everyone needs to set and share goals. And by setting these goals, you’re going to open yourself to potential failure and second-guessing. But in the end, it’s the goals that matter, not your feelings. That’s what being a leader is all about.
Finally, I learned the secret for keeping your people motivated.
Let’s face it, O’Malley’s got a tough struggle ahead of him to win the White House. And you know he’s going to have a lot of ups and downs over the next few months. Kind of like any business owner. So how does he keep his team motivated? By keeping them focused on the mission. “Through it all I just keep reminding everyone what we do and why we’re doing it,” he told me. “I don’t want to dismiss the importance of paying people well, but it’s not all compensation. It’s a higher aspiration. I would like to believe that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves and that as humans our work is important and needed. That’s one of the joys of public services.”