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Prioritize, collaborate and build trust: Kellogg professors offer advice to new President Barack Obama, pictured here at the Kellogg School’s Black Management Association conference in 2005.

Barack Obama

Change leadership

Kellogg School professors weigh in on the management lessons awaiting President Barack Obama

By Amy Trang

1/19/2009 - With an economy in despair and a country at war, President Barack Obama will face tremendous challenges after he is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

Obama will have a passel of advisers and no shortage of suggestions from the public, the pundits and the GOP. But his to-do list is daunting, and the new president will need to move quickly to master the most demanding management job in the world.

With that in mind, several Kellogg School professors share their insights on what Obama needs to do to deliver on his oft-repeated promise of “change you can believe in.”

Reestablish trust

Daniel Diermeier, IBM Distinguished Professor of Regulation and Competitive Practice

“A major goal on the foreign-policy side should be to restore trust in Brand USA. The difficulty is that there are also some very real interests that won't disappear, whether that is respect to Europe over trade issues or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question is, how do you improve and reestablish trust in the United States and its government in this context? Research on trust suggests the critical importance of transparency, sustained commitment, competence, and finally, a sense of empathy. All these things are important factors that restore trust.

There is a similarity of trust issues on the domestic side: over the last year there has been an erosion of trust in some of our key institutions. The difference or additional challenge domestically is that there are very few presidents who come into office with as high expectations as those with respect to President-elect Obama. People have a lot of trust in him, but these trust accounts can be emptied very quickly with some ill-considered decisions. But if this is carefully managed and there is the continued sense of transparency, accountability, and professionalism that has been displayed during the campaign, the Obama administration will have a lot of capital to work with.”

Communicate principles and priorities

Adam Galinsky, Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management

“President Obama needs to articulate broad principles. That’s what made Reagan such an effective leader because he came in with a few, specific broad principles as he entered office (strong defense combined with low taxes to stimulate the economy). These principles can then serve as the guiding force behind specific policy recommendations.

“President-elect Obama also has to set priorities. Many studies show that the first 100 days are crucial for the president. He wants to make specific priorities when he has the highest political capital. He doesn’t want to squander this time and this opportunity. He doesn’t want to tackle issues that are going to lead to tense reactions, such as when President Clinton engaged the military on gays (despite having no military background). One of the natural consequences of power is that it makes people optimistic and can make them overconfident. Obama wants to harness the optimism to inspire people but he doesn’t want to overreach.

“Third, he needs to staff his executive well. Competence should come first, even if his appointees have been rivals. People speak in glowing terms of Lincoln’s team of rivals, but reaching out across the partisan divide makes for better policy and commitments from more congresspersons.

“Finally, he needs to lead but also listen. Studies show that when people feel listened to, even when they don’t get their ideal outcome, they are less resentful.”

Make contacts and collaborate

Keith Murnighan, Harold H. Hines Jr. Professor of Risk Management

“President-elect Obama needs to make very strong contacts and collaborate. The United States is in a powerful position, but the more we flaunt our power, the worse it is. If the powerful party is forthcoming with information about its outlook and strategies, the weaker parties can adapt, can disagree and can make requests. They know where you are coming from and you’re not surprising them. They may not be happy with all of your decisions, but they respect you for being forthcoming with them and that can build a positive relationship even in a contentious situation.

“Obama is going to be subject to criticism when he makes unilateral moves but it’s necessary if he’s going to move ahead. It will be appreciated if he is bringing in ideas and other points of view from the other side of the aisle in Congress. They will want to know the decisions he’s going to make before he makes them even if they are not being consulted. They just want the respect of being told and a reason why. I have high hopes that he will open the doors and have conversations when he should and not open the door when he shouldn’t.”