Kellyanne Conway: Lessons from the woman who won the election

Elliott Haworth
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Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump Holds Election Night Event In New York City
Kellyanne Conway was the driving force behind Trump's win (Source: Getty)

President Donald Trump. You can’t deny it has a ring to it, however much you may dislike him.

Liberal elites are looking for someone to blame. Was it belligerent white America showing two fingers to the elite; the Russian Bear, claws prying into the Democratic campaign? Fake news, trolls, the filter bubble, the alt-right? Many will have you believe anything malign drove Trump’s victory, so long as he doesn’t appear a successful tactician.

But that is to oversimplify. Trump is not one man, he is a team of people. Throughout his journey to the White House, he used various campaign managers to direct his team – from Corey Lewandowski to Steve Bannon. But none were as effective as Kellyanne Conway, the quick witted GOP pollster who flipped his ratings, bridged the poll gap, and to an extent, drove home his win in the dying weeks of the campaign.

Now his special adviser, her job – “The Kellyanne Role” – is as much about managing his outburts as it is policy direction. But what can we learn about dealing with difficult bosses from the woman who won?

Find your target

Trump’s campaign was out of touch with women. So along came Conway: he had an image problem, she had an image answer. She became the sympathetic female face amid the braying machismo. By endlessly repeating adaptations of “Mr Trump has a positive vision for America”, she reinforced a digestible narrative, targeted at disillusioned women.

More importantly, Conway proved her worth to the famously demanding Trump with an election winning idea. She identified the key demographic in the election, the so-called “undercover voters” and ensured he relentlessly pursued them in the swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Speak your mind

When it surfaced that Mitt Romney was a prospective candidate for secretary of state, Conway appeared on television to deliver a damning verdict.

“People feel betrayed”, she said. Romney “went out of his way to question the character and the intellect and the integrity of Donald Trump”.

Often, honesty is the best policy, and although Conway detached herself from the accusation, “reflecting what the grassroots are saying”, she used soft power to passively influence Trump and keep Romney away from the West Wing. Supposedly Trump was “furious”. But it worked. If your boss, a demagogue or not, is making bad decisions, being brazen will force their attention.

Tame the beast

Here’s a mouthful of a paradox: how do you manage an astute micromanager who doesn’t want to feel managed? Aside from putting an electric shock collar round his neck, anyway.

Conway is being lauded as the “Trump whisperer”. In the dying breath of the campaign, she temporarily banned him from Twitter to avoid tact-changing outbursts, got him to stop attacking fellow Republicans, and instead focus on “Crooked Hillary Clinton”.

When dealing with a business authoritarian, used to playing the tough-guy-dealbreaker in the boardroom, the key is to shape the message that he wants to deliver, rather than impose one on him.

Know your limits

When dealing with a character like Trump, all you can attempt is to influence his behaviour. But as he proves time and time again, he is in charge. In the last week alone he’s wiped billions off Lockheed Martin’s market value with a single tweet, implied he will scrap the construction of Air Force One and accused NBC of being “inaccurate and bad”. Conway “politely declined” the role of press officer, funnily enough.

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

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