At the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit last week, I was standing in the green room with Karen Hughes, once a top adviser to President George W. Bush and now vice-chair at PR giant Burson-Marsteller. "So many of the lessons that the business leaders are talking about here are applicable to Washington," Hughes said to me, reciting quotes from the on-stage interviews with CEOs such as IBM's Ginny Rometty and Xerox's Ursula Burns. I couldn't resist asking Hughes to write a piece for us. She wrote it on her flight home from California to Texas. Turns out, it's wise advice for leaders in business and politics alike.
by Ambassador Karen Hughes, Worldwide Vice Chair, Burson-Marsteller
In my work as a strategic communications adviser to business leaders, I frequently apply the lessons of politics to today's corporate environment. The most fundamental rule of the political process – that candidates have to define themselves or their opponents will define them – increasingly applies to companies, as everyone from activist groups to customers to competitors chime in to share stories that help define or undermine brands.
But during last week's Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, I found myself wishing today's political leaders would take more heed of some of the lessons shared at this conference by some of the leading women in business.
1. Find shared strategic beliefs. With the world changing so quickly, companies have to focus on "strategic beliefs" and align everyone toward those beliefs, rather than be too prescriptive, said Ginni Rometty, chairman and CEO of IBM (IBM). You have to agree on big directional arcs, and then allow people to have a say and contribute ideas to achieve them, she explained.
I suspect if leaders of both political parties focused on a shared set of "strategic beliefs" for our country, it might help them find more common ground. As one example, leaders in both parties want to preserve Medicare for future generations of seniors. Accepting that as a fundamental obligation of our country, a "strategic belief" might allow a more honest discussion of how we can come together as a nation to shore up Medicare's finances and make it stronger for the long run.
2. Practice impatience. "Impatience is a virtue," said Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO, Xerox (XRX). "If you settle in" and do only what previous leaders did, "you'll be run over by change." You have to set an aspirational path and be "impatient to achieve it," Burns said.
Imagine if Congress were "impatient to achieve" immigration reform, or more trade agreements, or a solution to the fiscal cliff--or even a budget? Polls show people have overwhelmingly negative opinions about Congress. Greater urgency and actual action might go a long way toward making the American people improve their view of Congress.
3. Play like a team. During a discussion of the many ways that playing sports can help prepare leaders, Ellen Kullman, Chair and CEO of DuPont (DD) made the point that "in sports, you have to play with other people on the team whether you like them or not. You learn to work together… to get the job done."
If ever there were a lesson that both sides of the aisle and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue need to take to heart, that is it. In my company and in businesses across America, Republicans and Democrats work together and get the job done. In fact, diversity of opinion and approach is viewed as valuable in helping shape solutions. It's time for Washington to adopt that attitude and approach.
4. Get real. The explosion of social media and other communication channels requires today's companies to be "authentic, transparent and human," said Wendy Clark, Senior Vice President of The Coca-Cola Company (KO). To be successful, companies can no longer just provide a two-sentence corporate line. They have to answer complaints, tell good stories, celebrate the community and put their customers and fans first.
Washington needs a dose of that reality. Americans are tired of sound bites and pat solutions. Voters are smart and know the problems are hard. They want leaders to be more transparent and real, to admit their mistakes and put the interests of the people ahead of their narrow political interests.
5. Finally, Washington needs to hear a lesson that Ginni Rometty said she learned from her mom. "Nothing is insurmountable."
The worlds of business and politics have much to learn from each other. I hope some in Washington are listening.
The Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit packed in famous names and exclusive interviews on Tuesday.
IBM (IBM) CEO Ginni Rometty, No. 1 on the 2012 Most Powerful Women list, did her first interview since taking the CEO job in January.
Kraft Foods CEO Irene Rosenfeld talked strategy on the day she split her business into two new companies.
Former Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz gave advice to new chief Marissa Mayer on reviving the MOREPatricia Sellers - Oct 3, 2012 8:48 AM ET
Playing a key role in the Xerox (XRX) corporate turnaround, serving on the American Express (AXP) board, doing big deals with Procter and Gamble (PG)—all these things give Ursula Burns unique perspective on the value of corporate reputation. The Xerox chief knows from personal experience how reputation can make or break a company.
Burns takes reputation very seriously. When I asked her to answer a few questions for Fortune's Most Admired MOREPatricia Sellers - Mar 6, 2012 9:25 AM ET
When Ursula Burns went to Washington and met with President Obama last Friday, at least two people in the room personified her notion of what leads to great success: "The biggest differentiator is not how you are born," says the Chairman and CEO of Xerox (XRX). "It's how you're influenced throughout your life."
Barack Obama had a remarkable single mother to influence him. As did Burns, who grew up on New MOREPatricia Sellers - Aug 16, 2011 10:55 AM ET
Fortune and Yahoo (YHOO) are teaming up to present weekly content -- stories and videos -- about Most Powerful Women. This is the first in a series of Postcards that will appear on Yahoo and Fortune.com.
It's the start of Most Powerful Women season at Fortune Magazine.
This is the time we begin hunting in earnest for the most successful women in business around the world. Fortune launched Most Powerful Women (MPW) in MOREPatricia Sellers - Jun 29, 2011 9:30 AM ET
FORTUNE -- Last week's Fortune Most Powerful Women dinner in Manhattan convened established stars, like Martha Stewart and Barbara Walters, with rising stars, like Chelsea Clinton and Barbara Bush. Two daughters of political dynasties converging in the same orbit.
And then there were 26 rising-star women from across the developing world--each a participant in the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring program. These young women were in the U.S. shadowing MOREPatricia Sellers - May 31, 2011 12:09 PM ET
The Xerox CEO shares advice from her own mentor.
FORTUNE -- For virtually every rising executive, it seems as though finding a mentor along the way is key. Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns didn't have to look very far to find hers early on. It was her mom.
"My mother was an amazing woman," she said Tuesday at Fortune's Most Powerful Women dinner in New York City, where some of the most MORENin-Hai Tseng, Writer - May 24, 2011 10:35 PM ET
"Leaders must role model what GREAT looks like."
In her comments at the "Fortune Most Powerful Women Evening With..." dinner in New York City Tuesday night McKinsey & Co. 's Joanna Barsh was talking about the importance of corporate women leaders helping middle managers. But her comments helped set the tone for the evening, which also recognized a group of international rising stars who have been mentored by some of the MOREStephanie N. Mehta, Deputy Managing Editor - May 24, 2011 10:09 PM ET
by Patricia Sellers
On Monday we asked, "Are girls afraid of money?"
America (and beyond) voted and...I don't know what to conclude except I know that the question stirred the pot.
In the heated debate that ensued, I particularly appreciated the viewpoint of Matt in Springfield, VA, who said he wasn't surprised by the results of the experiment in which five $20 bills were placed randomly on classroom desks, and female college students MOREPatricia Sellers - Apr 22, 2011 3:35 PM ET
by Patricia Sellers
While ideal partners at the top of Xerox (XRX), Anne Mulcahy and Ursula Burns stand apart in terms of strengths and style. Mulcahy, who was CEO and is now chairman, is a sales ace and strategist who brought Xerox back from the brink a decade ago. Burns, who rose from intern to president of the company, is a brass-tacks engineer who embraces execution and always got the job done.
Today Burns MOREPatricia Sellers - Mar 10, 2010 2:13 PM ET
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