What can British chief executives learn from the US presidential campaign?
The critical lesson is that technical expertise no longer defines leadership. Trump is not an expert on much, yet he managed to get himself elected to the most powerful political office in the world.
Talk to the people
One of Trump’s greatest campaign feats was his ability to rally support for his cause by communicating fluently and directly with disenfranchised voters. In too many big businesses, leaders spend their time locked in the boardroom, managing investors, or building their external profile.
Even when they do get out to see employees, they are generally subject to a beauty parade of pristine offices and staff without a care in the world. Time and time again, people just one level below the executive team in an organisation complain that their leaders have no idea what’s really going on and what it’s really like to try and deliver on their vision.
Like Trump, chief executives need to be having conversations with people at all levels.
This will make it far easier to understand the lay of the land during tricky times such as market disruption or internal change, and it will enable them to develop an authentic vision grounded in real information that staff can wholeheartedly buy into.
Beyond this ability to connect, we’ve also seen that Trump has been able to build a strong group of people around him. Whether we like them or not, he clearly assembled a campaign team capable of capitalising on his strengths and mitigating his weaknesses.
As we watch him set about selecting the team that will run the country, he is already surprising us with some of the inidviduals he has reached out to. While a good chief executive may not have all the answers, they must have the intelligence to identify what skills they lack and then build a team around them that helps fill these gaps. Otherwise they risk recruiting in their own image.
Just look at the financial services industry – there is rarely enough diversity of emotional awareness, ego, political philosophy, or educational background on senior teams.
In 2016, great chief executives must be deliberate in choosing executives that complement their skills and outlook and put personal time and energy into ensuring this diversity is heard and harnessed. It sounds obvious, but leaders should know and admit their strengths and weaknesses, and this self-awareness doesn’t always come with the kind of ego needed to boss a FTSE firm.
Don’t ignore the fringes
Trump’s victory and Hillary’s loss has also taught us that it is foolish to ignore those on the fringes. In today’s world it’s critical that chief executives identify and develop relationships with employees who may have a different or difficult view. These employees may be extremely influential and often have ideas that could make a huge impact when navigating a new landscape.
So remember – technical expertise, while important, is not necessarily the be all and end all of good leadership.
Of course running a business without any expertise would be foolish, but the US presidential campaign and Trump’s shock victory confirms that the ability to gain followers, build the right team, and harness ideas from the fringes are at least as important.
Atif Sheikh is chief executive of Business 3.0