Building The Best Team Ever – 5 Lessons From The Obama Campaign

People sometimes laugh when I call the Obama campaign a start up.  But when you think about it, it really was.  In May of 2011, there were less that 50 of us working as a team in a massive, mostly empty office in Chicago, thinking about the organization we would build to try and re-elect the President.  We started with no money, no staff, and no opponent….A dauntingly blank canvass that the world was watching.

18 months later, that same office was bustling with hundreds of talented, exhausted staff… and there were thousands more of us around the country.  We did what we had come there to do. We had re-elected Barack Obama.  There has been a lot written about why and how we won…

Was it big data?  Was it technology?  Was it our field organizing efforts across the country?  Was it the money we raised?

My answer to all these things is yes. They are part of the reason we won. But there isn’t one silver bullet that made the difference.

The thing that was essential was the team that we built and our emphasis on integrating all these things.  From Jim Messina to every field organizer in Ohio, we were trying to solve the same problems. We invested in our people and our relationships with one another to reach our goals.  That doesn’t mean there weren’t tensions or moments of strife, but it did mean that we saw the value that each part of the team produced and learned how to do our piece better because of that. At the end of the day, that is what made it all work. Building and taking care of that team was essential on every level.  It was the one thing we could not have done without.

Here are 5 quick tips for building and investing in your team that were key to us on the Obama Campaign and might help other startups (both for profits and nonprofits) get on the right foot:

Look for people with diverse skill sets

It is easy for us to build a team of people we like with skillsets similar to our own. However, people who challenge one another and bring different strengths to the table when working as a team ultimately make the product and the organization stronger. Make the tough choices and build a team of people that are different from you.

Focus on transparency and communication

Employees perform better when they feel like they are in the loop. So keep them in the loop. Particularly in a start up environment where things are changing all the time and a sense of security is fleeting, clear communication is important for employees on every level of the organization.  The best way to make sure this happens is to make it part of your routine.  This could be through regular meetings, emails with updates, brainstorms on challenges you are faced with or via regular shared reports.  I use a mix of all of these. These routine actions will not only help employees feel invested, but also get as many smart minds into the business of problem solving as possible.

Invest in training

The Obama Campaign had a national training team (led by the talented Sara El-Amine) that focused only on developing a training curriculum for staff and volunteers.  Every staff member at every level of the organization received a training when they started.  This ensured common vocabulary, shared values, and a sense of community. This took time and resources but paid off in our ability to execute when it counted most. Ongoing training is key to letting employees know you are invested in them but also creates a shared culture and a set of memories that is irreplaceable for building and strengthening your staff team.

Focus on management

Management is a skill. It takes training and practice.  All of us get better at it over time. We all know the difference that a good manager can make.  It can be the difference between giving 110% to your job and just doing what it takes to get by. However, we often fail to support new managers in a ways that builds the culture we want in our organizations. This happens on campaigns all the time.  Good organizers get promoted to manage other organizers with almost no training on how to do so. Being a good organizer doesn’t make someone a good manager and yet very little support and training is given to new managers.  Investing in good managers by providing training, using management skills as part of regular evaluations, and having some norms for managers to follow will ensure you have good managers within your organization and people are supported on every level.

Celebrate victories together

Building something new can be difficult and sometimes it is easy to fail to see the forest through the trees.  The good news is that new organizations have victories every day.  As a person in leadership, you have a responsibility to celebrate those victories with your team.  This builds morale and shared success which lead to trust and faith in common goals. There are many different ways to do this, but figuring out how to normalize this as part of your organization is key.

Today, I am a partner and Chief Digital Strategist at 270 Strategies, a consulting firm that was started after the campaign by a few Obama alumni. I now see other new companies and organizations asking key questions about how to build their infrastructure to set themselves up for success. I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of the team you build and the relationships that hold that team together.  Working as a team will get you through the rough patches that inevitably come with a start up.  Working as a team will give you the tools to solve hard problems and ask hard questions.  And ultimately, working as a team will provide a support system to celebrate with at the end of the day.

Your Turn: Does your organization have a strong team of go-getters? What are your tips for building and managing a great team? Please share with us below in the Comments section!

Photo Credit: Anthony Baker

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