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Mobilizing Support

The following excerpt from "Keep Them On Your Side," by Samuel B. Bacharach, director of the Cornell University's Institute for Workplace Studies and author of Get Them on Your Side, explains how leaders can overcome opposition to ideas and sustain momentum.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007
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Political Momentum: Mobilize Support and Anticipate Opposition

Often, the most obvious obstacles to sustaining momentum are conflict and criticism. There are always naysayers. There are always those who initially may have thought you had a good idea, but now openly question whether you are doing things the right way. There is always the potential of emerging countercoalitions that will challenge your direction. Maintaining momentum often tests your political instincts.

When do you bring people onboard? When do you face the resistors? When do you ignore them? When do you dismiss them? The challenge is to know when to mobilize support and when to anticipate opposition.

Leaders capable of sustaining political momentum understand exactly whom they should mobilize and whom they should exclude. They know exactly how much room to give people to criticize and discuss, but they never give them enough leeway to revolt.

President Lincoln faced many challenges during his presidency; one was dealing with Secretary of Treasury Salmon B. Chase. As treasurer, he was a valuable member of the Cabinet, and he tirelessly raised funds for the Union Army. But Chase harbored presidential ambitions, ambitions of which Lincoln was fully aware.

Lincoln did not work against Chase or his supporters. The president always treated Chase with fairness and kindness, and was not the least reluctant to appoint Chase supporters to key positions. Lincoln's close allies questioned Lincoln's political moves -- preferring that the president keep the man who would challenge him for his job at arm's length.

To explain why he treated Chase the way he did, Lincoln told a story about when he was a boy plowing a Kentucky field with a horse. The horse, which had been trundling along, perked up and practically ran to the length of the furrow.

Lincoln noticed a chin-fly that had latched itself to the horse's hide. The young Lincoln's first inclination was to knock the fly from the horse, but his friend said it was a mistake, because it was the fly that made the horse work so efficiently.

Lincoln remarked that if Chase "has a presidential chin-fly biting him, I'm not going to knock him off, if it will only make his department go."

Lincoln understood that he needed Chase not as a follower, but as a partner, and partnership does have its costs. Lincoln understood that Chase's success as Secretary of Treasury was fueled by his ambition for the presidency.

Lincoln saw himself as the chin-fly driving Chase, and indeed, would tolerate criticism as long as Chase was raising the badly needed funds for the Union Army and as long as Chase's countercoalition did not pose a serious threat to the president.

One of Lincoln's major skills was his capacity to monitor Chase's internal opposition and sustain political momentum.

It's easy to dismiss leaders who are focused on political momentum as either Machiavellian or paranoid. The truth is that both of these descriptions ignore the simple reality that, at times, you have to be aware of unrest, you have to deal with hesitation, and you have to understand sabotage.

Mobilizing people means making sure that you keep them on your side. You keep their interests focused and you make it clear that their early buy-in to your agenda will be rewarded with success.

Mobilizers are constantly negotiating, constantly influencing, and constantly persuading.

Michael Eisner's tenure at Disney serves as an example of a leader who was highly effective at sustaining political momentum. When Eisner became the CEO of Disney in 1984, he was an "outsider" responsible for infusing fresh ideas and a focus on results to the struggling icon of animated film.

Eisner developed his agenda for Disney -- to build on the organization's core animation capabilities and to create a much more powerful film production business that moved well beyond cartoons and animated film.

Eisner quickly began to turn the company around and demonstrate results. Disney's stock price rose from about $2 per share (split adjusted) when Eisner took over to a high of nearly $45 per share in early 2000.

Despite the success of Disney's stock, Eisner faced persistent criticism from within the organization and from around the industry. Eisner was a savvy monitor who was keenly aware of his critics and camps of resistance and who responded to those detractors with a range of strategies: from bringing them onboard with his agenda to moving them out of the company.

When Eisner joined Disney, he brought with him Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells. The three continued to bring on colleagues and professionals from the film business, helping Eisner build political momentum for his agenda.

From 1984 to 1994, Disney's strong performance -- along with his firm alliance with Katzenberg, Wells, and their staffs -- enabled Eisner to squelch any resistance to his agenda. When Frank Wells died in a tragic helicopter accident in 1994, in addition to losing an effective operating officer and close friend, Eisner lost an important political ally.

From 1994 to 2003, Eisner began to face an increasing amount of resistance and opposition -- particularly after his very public falling out with Jeffrey Katzenberg and the subsequent departure of other key executives.

Despite the increasing opposition, Eisner was able to sustain political momentum. Sometimes that was through replacing executives. Other times it was through acquisitions and alliances with other organizations (e.g., purchasing ABC/Capital Cities, ESPN, and Miramax).

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Even when Disney fell on hard times from 2001 to 2003, Eisner continued to maintain his political momentum -- with Disney's board of directors, with employees, and with industry analysts, vendors, and competitors. He used an autocratic style, bolstered by superior stock performance, to push his agenda through the organization.

By 2003, however, resistance to Eisner's agenda had grown to the point where Eisner was no longer able to maintain his political momentum. Whereas in the past Eisner had been able to use the company's performance as a way of overcoming resistors, now the company's poor performance fueled his opposition. In 2005, Eisner reluctantly stepped down as CEO of Disney.

Critics suggest that Eisner was a very poor politician. He alienated his closest people and was unable to build a management team that could provide the company with a long-term succession of leadership.

Perhaps all of this was true. Yet despite expectations that Disney would turn to an outsider to replace Eisner, it was eventually Bob Iger, an insider backed by Eisner, who was chosen to become chief executive. Many in the company and the media perceived this as a political victory for Eisner.

Political momentum is not always about being well liked and being a "model citizen." It is about your ability to mobilize support for and to deflect resistance to your agenda.

In this context, Eisner will never receive any awards for being the most well-like leader. Nor will he go down in history as one of the great people managers. What Eisner did remarkably well, however, was to build political momentum and then sustain this political momentum for his agenda over the course of 20 years.

His political momentum was closely tied to the company's financial performance and to the degree to which others viewed him as a "genius." Eisner used both of those factors to sustain political momentum over his 20-year tenure. But once those two sources of credibility eroded, Eisner's autocratic style undermined his leadership and stalled any momentum he had built for his agenda.

The challenge to your managerial competence is to be able to sustain all four dimensions of momentum.

You want to keep structural momentum going by maintaining resources and capacity. You want to sustain performance momentum by monitoring performance and adjusting. You want to keep cultural momentum going by motivating others. You want to sustain political momentum by mobilizing support.

It would be nice if the world were linear, where you could first maintain, then monitor, then motivate, then mobilize. But it's not that simple.

Your managerial competence will be tested by your ability to be cognizant of all four dimensions of momentum along the way. Proactive leaders, who are truly managerially competent, know when to put emphasis on one type of momentum over another. Your managerial competence will be tested by your ability to continually maintain, monitor, motivate, and mobilize for momentum.

Proactive leaders know that momentum is the key to keeping people on their side.

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