Barack Obama on why startups need to groom leaders to be more effective

At the Reshape 2021 Summit, Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America spoke to Hande Çilingir, Co-founder and CEO, Insider about entrepreneurship, startups, and leadership.

As the 44th President of the United States of America, and the Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama had over three million people working with him, and oversaw a budget of a whopping $1.5 trillion. As the President and now as a self-proclaimed startup founder of the Obama Foundation, he believes it is important for startups to connect with people and create other leaders.

In a conversation with Hande Çilingir, President Obama said, "I've had extraordinarily talented people who, in many cases, were smarter than I was in a whole range of areas, and had skill sets that I didn't possess. I always describe presidency as being the frontman in a band. You may be the one in the front singing, but it doesn't work if you don't have all this amazing talent around you, and I've been lucky in being able to both attract and maintain talent over long periods of time."

He added that there are two things that are important to ensure this:

  1. "I was always able to communicate a sense of mission and purpose in my organisation, and people responded to that. Everyone's interested in what their pay is, and their benefits and their career advancements, but people also want to feel as if they're making a difference in the world, and that what they do is important. And so, I think the first job of a leader is to be able to describe a vision for the organisation's purpose and mission that people find important and meaningful, and that they want to invest themselves in."
  2. "It is also about creating a culture inside the organisation in which everyone feels valued and everyone feels like they're making a contribution, and everyone feels seen and heard. And I think that's where a lot of organisations fail. They go through the motions of caring about their employees. But, at the end of the day, they don't really invest in them, and they don't really feel as if that person is unique and is making a unique contribution and deserves to be seen and heard, and supported."
"The problem doesn't arise when you are small as a startup with 20 or 50 people. The challenges happen when you touch 100 or more. Then as a startup it becomes extremely critical to be able to train the leaders around you. As the president, it was obviously impossible for me to connect with all three million people. But what I could do was make sure that my cabinet, advisors, and senior staff understood my expectations of how they were treating other people."

He adds his team was judged based on whether or not they were helping people under them develop and grow, feel respected, grow, and be seen.

"And that was the culture. I think it is part of the reason why not only there was and still is low turnover in our organisations, but also, we didn't have any drama or scandals. People always understood that there were certain expectations in terms of how we treat each other, and how we help each other grow and develop," he said.

He added that during his tenure as president, and even now in his organisation, he strives to make sure everyone around him knows that he cares about them. Even if people felt that they were stuck or couldn't learn or grow, he explained that they were given the opportunity and support to find a new place.

"I care about what they think. They are important to the success of the organisation and their development was important. I would ask them — how can I help you do your job better, what tools can I give you that you need? Are there ways in which you can develop and learn that we can support you in?" added Obama.

He said it is important to be authentic.

"Once you have people believing in the mission of the organisation from themselves, then you have enormous loyalty," Obama added.

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Edited by Kanishk Singh