by Rob Enderle

3 big leadership lessons learned from Trump’s win

Dec 30, 2016
AnalyticsIT Leadership

As we embark on a new year columnist Rob Enderle reflects on the 2016 presidential election and lessons the tech business and its leaders can learn from it.

As we are getting ready to go back to work, and many of us are beginning to dread the trip to Las Vegas and CES, I’ll bet you are still discussing the election. There is a lot to discuss, like how did Obama do so well with analytics and Clinton do so poorly, how did Clinton spend her life in politics and yet not understand how classification actually worked, and why, after decades of manipulating elections in other countries was the U.S. so ill-prepared to have it happen to it? But I think there are three big tech lessons you can take away from that battle.

The power of tech firms is tech

This seems obvious but very misunderstood during the election. Clinton basically had the entire tech industry in her corner and many of the firms sold analytics solutions. Yet she seemed to value the related firms for their money and verbal political support. Instead of helping her get analytics right so she could make better choices, they donated money and signed letters against her opponent who had one tech guy, Peter Theil, who focused almost exclusively on, wait for it, tech.

The takeaway is that one tech guy focused on tech is worth more than all of the tech people in the industry focused on politics.  

[ Related: How Trump defeated Clinton using analytics ]

Perceptions win

My favorite saying is “perception is 100 percent of reality.” It amazes me how many people in and out of tech don’t get this. The iPod, iPhone and especially the iPad are sold on perceptions that had people believing they were magical devices, almost life changing, and folks stood in line for days to be the first to get one. They weren’t and aren’t that special, but as long as people believed differently reality didn’t matter.  

Trump aggressively controlled the perceptions around his opponents going so far as to rebrand them. That is the cornerstone of FUD, the ability to rebrand a competing product and make people believe it sucks especially when it doesn’t. It is also the cornerstone of marketing, making people see the magic in your products and manage those expectations so those people aren’t disappointed. Trump simply did a better job of managing perceptions, and reality never mattered that much and none of his opponents seemed to understand that at all.  

[ Related: How a CEO assessment model might predict Trump’s success or failure ]

Keep it simple

This is a rule that every one of us should have tattooed on our foreheads in blood. Trump’s organization was relatively simple and he was the lead spokesperson.   He rarely was on message, but when he was there was no dissenting or mixed messages surrounding him, other than what he created and he actually created a lot. But he was clearly the person of the hour.

Clinton had surrogates on top of surrogates and several looked far more capable than she did. It made her look weak and her message, other than being anti-Trump, was relatively complex and far harder to understand as a result. Complexity stands in the way of good execution and one of the reasons Trump out-executed Clinton was because he had a far simpler organization, which meant it was far easier to pivot and mange consistently. He may be a better manager but, with a simpler organization and message, he didn’t need to be.  

Obvious lessons  

I think these things should be obvious, but it isn’t just politicians who don’t get them. Unfortunately, a lot of tech executives don’t get them. It amazes me how many seemed to be using the relationship with Clinton for visibility and to get a lower paying cabinet post for status instead of actually helping their chosen candidate win.

Meg Whitman, in particular, should have pulled out all the stops because changing sides to pick a losing candidate likely ended any chance she’ll ever have of holding elective office (seriously, her picture should be in the dictionary under bad judgment). But if you are going to use an expert, use them for what they are an expert in, you don’t use a stock broker for medical advice or a doctor for investment advice or a tech exec for political advice — you use them for what they are best at.  

[ Related: What CEOs can learn from President-elect transition process ]

If you don’t understand the power of perceptions, stay the hell away from politics or marketing, otherwise you’ll do yourself and your company more harm than good. Perceptions rule and tech is a wonderful force multiplier when it comes to forming perceptions. Understanding that simple rule is often the difference between winning and losing.

And finally, complexity is a project- and company-killer. Keep it simple, so one person makes decisions not a committee of folks who don’t get along. Keep teams are small and focused, not big and suffering from mission creep, and have one voice ring out into the night for the night is dark and full of terrors.   And those terrors aren’t in Game of Thrones, but in the marketing departments of your competitors.  

Here is wishing you a Happy New Year and that these lessons aren’t as hard-learned for you and your people as they clearly were by Hillary Clinton.