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Professor Mark Alexander: Putting Vision into Action on the Obama Campaign Trail

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"...I am honored to have been part of an effort that is transforming not just politics, but our government."

“We changed the way politics works,” is how Professor Mark Alexander described Barack Obama’s groundbreaking campaign, in which Prof. Alexander played a key role in then-Senator Obama’s bid for the Presidency. As Obama’s appointed policy director, Prof. Alexander mobilized teams to develop the positions and recommendations that would transform America, meeting our nation’s formidable challenges in such areas as international relations, health care, education and the environment.

In early June 2009, Prof. Alexander spoke to members of Newark Regional Business Partnership, sharing with them insights that they might apply to their own organizations. Here’s his overview:

Respect. Empower. Include: “In building a policy team both inside and outside the campaign, we needed to build on the organizing principles at the heart of our effort. We needed experts in the policy fields who ‘embodied the creed’— who shared Senator Obama’s vision of the future – to develop visionary policies that would drive his campaign. I set up a pyramid structure. We recruited committee leaders, some of the nation’s best-known experts in these areas, and they recruited their colleagues and mobilized volunteers from among academia, commerce, advocacy organizations and legislative bodies, from local city councils to the national Senate. We requested white papers laying out their ideas, we set basic parameters on format, and we let them fly. What transpired was a nationwide cross-pollination of ideas and points of view. I saw the power of the pyramid when it’s founded on trust. You can pass the power down and succeed. When every stakeholder has a voice, and when team members can take action and make decisions, they become owners, fully invested in the campaign and its outcome.”

Put the right people in the right place:  “When you’re harnessing a group of volunteers you need to capitalize on each person’s strengths and compensate for the liabilities. While the committee leader was the visionary to drive policy ideas, we assigned each an administrator, someone we called a ‘convener,’ who pushed the project forward: scheduling calls, following up on the meetings, checking in with ‘headquarters’ and turning the brainstorming into a finished product. My team monitored each policy committee’s progress, and where it seemed that momentum was flagging – meetings were not scheduled, commitments might not be met – we stepped in with logistical support to bolster their efforts and keep the project on track.”

Challenge your people to do things they have never done before:  “Once the policy work was done, we’d amassed nearly 1,000 dedicated Obama supporters. Now we needed to move away from ‘thinking’ and into the hands-on work that makes or breaks a campaign: knocking on doors, asking friends for money, making cold calls to voters. We scheduled conference calls with Senator Obama, to include and inspire them. And we made simple requests, like asking: ‘Hey can you come to Iowa for a few days?’ We didn’t expect the next wave: committees began competing with each other about how much money they’d raised, or about the numbers of calls they made. We heard about a few policy folks who packed up their kids and spent their school breaks in New Hampshire. I think what drove them is how committed they were to the cause, but it was amazing to watch leading scholars turn into some of the best canvassers I’d ever seen.”

 Find the best tools to do your job and mobilize the people who know how to use them:  “When the books analyzing our campaign come out, you’ll see entire chapters devoted to Obama campaign’s use of the online forums, from our interactive Web site to the email blasts to Facebook and Twitter. We sought out young people who interact every day through those utilities and we followed their lead when we asked them, ‘How do we make this work?’ We respected and empowered them to find creative new solutions. And you saw the results.” “The Obama campaign did not emerge overnight; it was built over several years. We gave the campaign the underpinnings that drive our nation’s best organizations. Looking back over the past two years, thinking of the principles and priorities of Barack Obama, I am honored to have been part of an effort that is transforming not just politics, but our government.”