"Did I win or lose today?": What business can learn from the high-stakes game of politics

"Did I win or lose today?": What business can learn from the high-stakes game of politics

One of my favorite scene’s in Lewis Carroll’s classic book, Alice in Wonderland, is when Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ The cat replies, ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.’ ‘I don’t much care where—’ says Alice. ‘Then’, says the cat, “it doesn’t matter which way you go.” It’s one of those lines that both hilarious and profoundly true at the same time.

Politics vs. Business

Unlike Alice’s meanderings in Wonderland, in politics the goals are amazingly clear, and the level of commitment is extremely high. In fact, rarely does anyone look beyond the next election cycle, sometimes not even the next news cycle. That’s because unlike business, politics is an all-or-nothing endeavor. If a company’s sales only measure $228 million this year, instead of its goal of $229 million, all is not lost. Its stock price might tick down a few points. And a few executives might earn a slightly smaller bonus. But the company won’t shut down and lay off all its workers. But if a politician only gets 49 percent of the vote, instead of 51 percent, the election is lost. That politician— and every single member of his or her campaign staff— is out of a job until the next election.

Ben LaRocco2Just ask Ben LaRocco. After finishing a degree in political science in 2003, he went into politics as a campaign staffer for local, state, and federal candidates. He had five different jobs in his first four years out of school, because a typical campaign lasts only six to nine months.

What’s the work like? According to Ben, campaign season is brutal. As he describes it, “You work long days, well into the night, and you have no social life. That’s why most campaign staffers are single. There’s no time for family.” And they constantly check their own level of commitment. When it’s 100 degrees outside in August and you’ve been knocking on doors for the past nine hours, you have to remind yourself that the next 10 doors could make the difference in the election. If you didn’t believe that, you’d be at the bar already.

Ben’s first campaign

Ben learned that lesson the hard way in one of his first jobs. He was working on the primary campaign for a state congressional candidate in Ohio. The opposing candidates were well matched— both politically and financially. Ben worked hard all season, right up to election night. When the polls closed at 7 P.M., his work was finally done. He watched the returns come in from campaign headquarters for the next two hours. At 9 P.M., his candidate was down by only a handful of votes. He got in his car for his 90-minute drive home.

Turning on the television when he arrived, he learned they were now up by less than 50 votes. When he got up the next morning, they were still up, now by 62 votes. But they weren’t done counting. With such a close election, many precincts counted twice. So the candidates took turns being on top one day and behind the next. Two weeks later, one county found 23 uncounted votes. Unfortunately, it was a county that favored his opponent. In the final tally, his candidate lost by 22 votes out of over 34,000 votes cast. His margin of defeat was 49.96 percent to 50.04 percent. A tough defeat to take at the tender age of 22.

Daily goals: “Did I win or lose today?”

That loss taught Ben important lessons about goals and commitment. In every campaign since then, he’s recalled that experience and retold the story to his colleagues. And with that as motivation, he did two things differently in every election since. First, he tore out the pages of a daily calendar— five or six month’s worth of them— for every day up to Election Day. He posted those pages on the wall and wrote daily and weekly goals on them: how many phone calls to make this day, how much money to raise by this week, how many people to meet, how many doors to knock on. He tracked progress against those goals every day.

Second, every morning when he got up, he asked himself, “What am I going to do today better than my competition? What will I do today to affect what happens on November 2?” And when he went to bed at night, he asked, “Did I win or lose today? Did I do more or less than my competition?”

The lesson here is that it’s easier to be committed to a goal when the assessment of success and failure is clear and unequivocal, as it is in politics on Election Day. But even prior to ElectionDay, Ben found ways to create weekly and daily goals to keep himself motivated and on track for success.

Application to business

Pledger MonkThere’s something in this even for those not in politics. First, in the midst of the marginal ups and downs that most companies experience, it helps to create situations where victory and defeat are clearly defined. Second, there’s a benefit to having short-term milestones to measure against. But how do you do that? Obviously, you could tell your team that achieving the $229 million sales target is success and anything less is utter defeat. But that wouldn’t fool anyone. One creative solution is used by a veteran of one of the biggest investment banking firms in the world. His name is Pledger Monk.

By 2010, Pledger had 16 years’ experience in the business, and had established himself as a highly successful financial adviser— the kind newer advisers often come to him for counsel. In April of that year, one of those people was Toby Burkett. Toby BurkettHe was doing okay but knew he could be doing better. He knew that because he had just finished a Toughman boxing competition a month earlier. Despite never having fought in his life, he came in third in a field of 25 heavyweight fighters. The reason he did so well, he explained to Pledger, was that he had a great coach, and trained every day. It reminded him that he had always responded well to coaching. Growing up and even into his college years, his athletic and academic performance improved significantly with coaching.

He told Pledger,

I’d like to find someone to help me like that at work. Would you be willing to be my coach?

Pledger agreed, and they arranged to meet every Monday at 4 P.M.

The first thing Pledger did was set a specific goal for the end of the year. They agreed on an audacious 50 percent increase in revenue. (Of course it didn’t matter if Toby only achieved half that. A 25 percent increase was nothing to sneeze at.) Next, they created a list of the activities that lead to winning a new client and assigned a point value to each of them. Calling a prospect was worth 4 points, meeting a prospect in person was 10 points, and so on. Success was earning 45 points a day.

They started tracking points immediately. For the first few months, Toby was doing well, earning about 33 points a day on average, probably 10 points more than he would have earned prior to tracking points. And he was seeing an improvement in his revenue numbers. Then in October, another adviser came to Pledger with the same request for coaching. Sy RobinsonHis name was Sy Robinson. Pledger offered to have him join his Monday afternoon sessions with Toby, and the point system as well. Sy quickly agreed.

The Competition

With two participants now, Pledger had the opportunity to make the point system work even harder. Now it was a competition! He declared the first person to earn a total of 2,500 points would be the winner. And that’s when things got more interesting. The competition turned their business into one of Ben LaRocco’s political campaigns. Now the goal wasn’t just a 50 percent increase in revenue. It was to win the contest. That dynamic changed how the daily point system was viewed as well. The goal was still 45 points a day. But that didn’t seem to matter anymore. Now all they cared about was earning more points than the other guy! Just like Ben, at the end of the day they asked themselves, “Did I win or lose today?” Only in their case, they knew the answer. They could compare their scores every day— and did. Some days Toby won, some days Sy won.

Well, the competition was intense, and came down to the wire for both participants. In the end it was Toby who reached 2,500 points first, in just seven weeks. Averaging over 70 points per day was exhausting for both of them. But the benefit was clear. By the end of the year, Toby’s production was up 47 percent, close enough to the audacious 50 percent goal to declare a major victory. And Sy’s revenues were up almost as much. So they continued the point system but set their 2,500-point goal for a less-grueling 12-week cycle instead of 7 weeks. And their production has continued to rise. By August 2011, Toby’s monthly production was up a total of 76 percent. Pledger had found a way to turn the normally slower-paced business world into the high-commitment world of politics with an all-or-nothing definition of success and daily goals that are measurable.

The Lesson

When taken together, these two stories illustrate how specific, measurable, daily goals and unambiguous success criteria can lead to better outcomes. Hopefully they’ll help you think of some creative ways to construct your own goals and success criteria and maybe even a competition. You can share them with your whole organization to help them understand the benefit as well. At a minimum, you should be asking yourself, “Did I win or lose today?”

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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3 Responses

  1. Well, apparently there’s an app for everything now, even activity-based sales contests like Pledger used above. . . One listener to my podcast wrote in to share this one: https://www.fantasysalesteam.com/#. Pretty cool.

  2. I see much positive in this; setting goals and having an idea where one is going are both important. At the same time I am taking away something else from this as well, it can be lonely. All of this pressure to perform, to work these intense hours can often be at the expense of other elements of our well being; in fact Ben even says one is usually alone/single on the campaign work. So, if being alone on the journey is part of the plan, then OK. Or if being so committed to work one has no life outside of this, OK too. As for me, I prefer to have some goals, to know where I am going and to go it with relationships in tact. (Just my 2 cents) You know I Love what you do and who you are as a human being and I believe you have struck the perfect balance between work, home and friends. HUG! Kristin

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Kristin. This strategy is not for everyone. Which is one of the reasons I liked the way it was handled in all of these cases — on a voluntary basis. Ben set those goals for himself. And both Toby and Sy asked Pledger for help and voluntarily agreed to the competition. I would be much less in favor of something like this if it was implemented across the board for an entire organization, including people who didn’t want to be part of it. Thanks, as always, for you ideas. 🙂

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