Taking a long view after missing out

We have all seen situations where two or three internal candidates compete for the same executive role in an organisation. Ultimately, one candidate is selected and everyone wonders if the others will leave (by choice or otherwise) or stay and support the ‘winning’ candidate. The evidence suggests that all too often people exit the business in these situations.

It’s worth asking whether this is the best outcome – for the individual and for the organisation - considering these people had been considered for the role of CEO or another top executive position. It’s a difficult question to answer, but it is reasonable to suggest that their departure isn’t always the best decision for either party.

In this light, it’s interesting to review the behaviour and performance of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, over recent years.

Track back to 2008 and the contest for the Democrat nomination for the US presidency later that year. Through the early primaries and caucuses, Clinton and Barack Obama were neck and neck. In many quarters, Clinton was regarded as the favourite and Obama second choice.

Clinton had been at the very centre of her husband’s eight years in the White House, had an excellent understanding of domestic and foreign policy issues, had served eight years in the US Senate, and seemed to possess high level leadership qualities. Add to this her political appeal to both the American female population and her revered status within the Democrat Party and it would have been reasonable to assume she was excellently placed to beat the senator from Illinois and win the party’s nomination.

As the primary season wore on, Obama developed momentum and assumed front runner status such that Clinton conceded in June and supported Obama’s nomination.

It can be assumed that she must have been devastated by this outcome. Faced with the same situation, many people would have retreated bitter and wounded, just like the defeated candidates in the corporate scenario outlined earlier.

Yet Clinton gave a passionate speech supporting Obama at the August 2008 Democratic National Convention and campaigned frequently for him through the remainder of his campaign.

Forward to November 2008 and rumours began to emerge from Obama’s transitional team that a role for Clinton in his administration was being discussed. Most pundits rejected the idea outright, and even those who gave it credence suggested Clinton would reject it out of hand.

On December 1 2008, President-elect Obama formally announced that Clinton would be his nominee for secretary of state (one of the key roles in any administration, along with treasury and defence). She was later confirmed in the role by a Senate vote of 94-2, and at that time enjoyed a public approval rating of 65 per cent.

Since that time, and by the judgment of many domestic and foreign observers, she has done a sound job. She threw herself into the role and has set the record for the most travelled secretary for time in office (she has visited 95 countries and clocked up 730,000 air miles). The US has played an important role in the Arab Spring, withdrawn its troops from Iraq, set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and has retreated significantly from the Bush/Rumsfeld approach to foreign policy.

At the same time, Clinton has been a loyal member of the Obama administration – no leaks or "off the records”, unlike events closer to home.

As to the future, she is being touted as Obama’s vice presidential nominee, with rumour suggesting current VP Joe Biden will swap roles with her. Whether this happens or not is problematic, but in any case, she’s well positioned for the nomination (and the presidency) in 2016.

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald article, Bill Keller describes her as "64 years old, with a Calvinist work ethic, the stamina of an Olympian, an EQ to match her IQ and the political instincts of a Clinton”. According to Gallup, she is "the most admired woman in America for the tenth year in a row”.

So what can executives learn from Hillary Clinton about leadership in the event they miss out on the job they’ve always hungered for:

1. Take a long tern perspective – while there is bound to be initial disappointment and frustration, think ahead and determine whether bigger and better opportunities might develop further down the track; Clinton took a five to ten year view of the future and made conscious choices based upon this time frame.

2. Put your ego in your back pocket – whilst some will look at you as a loser for missing out, these people are unlikely to really count and the most important person is the one who looks back at you from the mirror each morning. Clinton accepted a number two role to someone who, if she had so chosen, might have been working for her.

3. Seek feedback and act on it – objectively determine why your colleague got the job and you didn’t and then constructively work on those issues, with appropriate help if needed, so you’re in a much better position next time. Clinton, in all likelihood, sought the counsel and advice of those whom she could trust.

4. Don’t bury the pain – it’s natural to feel hurt so find someone to whom you can vent. Decide to put it behind you and if you can’t do it immediately, fake it till you make it. Consciously deciding to be positive soon becomes self-fulfilling.

5. Stick with where you are if it makes sense. If you enjoy the organisation, your colleagues and the work you do, think seriously about staying; the old saying of the grass is not always being greener on the other side holds a good bit of truth. Think of what you’ve invested in your current organisation and consider carefully before winding your knowledge clock back to zero somewhere new. Clinton has always valued public service, enjoys playing a range of roles in it and is committed to it.

6. Support the winner – while it may be extraordinarily difficult to achieve, commit your loyalty and support to the successful candidate – it will be positively noticed. Clinton epitomises the essence of the "loyal lieutenant”.

The objective of this article is not to promote "Hilary for President in 2016” – time alone will determine if that is to be. It is simply to observe an individual who missed out on a role she has always wanted and draw leadership lessons from the way she has responded to these circumstances in a positive and considered manner.

Kip Frame is CEO of Stephenson Mansell Group. His background combines senior corporate executive roles in media and IT&T, with experience developing global professional services firms. He has considerable experience working in Asia and with global corporate programs for leadership and culture development. He is active in Stephenson Mansell’s client programs and provides a strong business output focus to his facilitation, mentoring and coaching.

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