Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

5 things business can teach Washington

October 8, 2012: 1:06 PM ET

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.

Karen Hughes  Credit: Burson-Marsteller

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.

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