A lesson in tech leadership from Barack Obama

The former president sat down with Marc Benioff to discuss how ensuring business success is a lot more than just adopting some 'outstanding Salesforce tool'.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor
Image: Jakub Mosur

Leaders should be looking for talent in places other than the usual and placing heavy emphasis on the values of the organisation in order to attract the right kind of talent, which will in turn create a more successful business, according to former US President Barack Obama.

Although Obama wasn't in the tech business, his lessons, Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff said, directly translate.

"A lot of times, the best answers we got were not from all the people with the most important titles or in the inner circle chairs -- it was the people on the wall," Obama said. "I figured out fairly early, those are the folks who are actually doing the work."

According to Obama, what is really powerful is when a group of people with different perspectives and different backgrounds are brought together.

"Because we all have blind spots, which is why diversity is not charity. It is not something you do -- if you're in a business right now, and you've got no African-American or Latino, Asian-American -- if you don't have diversity around that table you are missing a market, you're misunderstanding," Obama said.

"If you don't have women around your table … we see the data that they've actually shown, they've documented dollars and cents, S&P organisations that have a bunch of women on their boards, do better.

"Some of that is because women are smarter than men, but part of it is also the blind spots that are missed when you just have one kind of person at the table."

Additionally, Obama said he learned fairly early on it was self-defeating having only people around him who were saying, "Yes sir, that's great sir, you're brilliant sir".

See also: Transgender employees in tech: Why this "progressive" industry has more work to do to achieve true gender inclusivity (TechRepublic cover story)

Discussing one of the biggest environmental disasters in history, the Gulf oil spill, Obama said he turned to his Secretary of Energy who had drawn a fix to the situation on an envelope. The solution the physicist had scribbled actually worked.

"I can't take credit for figuring out how to shut that thing down; I can take credit for having appointed Steven Chu as my Secretary of Energy," Obama said. "I'm comfortable with that."

Obama used his appearance at Dreamforce 2019 in San Francisco on Thursday to tell the room that no leader is going to be able to solve everything by themselves, because they don't know enough about everything to be able to figure it out.

He touted the importance of creating a situation that empowers and respects everybody, saying having a network of different perspectives is utterly important.

The Obama Foundation is identifying young leaders in their late 20s, early 30s who he said are already doing great stuff.

"But what they need is to scale up, they need that boost -- they're almost like they're passing the pure startup stage but they haven't quite broken out yet," he said.

"We solicited applications, we had 25 slots for this program and the first year we got 25,000 applications … when you look through the amazing work that was already being done, this kind of leadership I think is everywhere, you just have to go out and look for it."

Alternatively, Obama said, organisations have to send out somewhat of a Bat Signal that says what values an organisation holds.

"If you send a signal, these are our values, this is what we stand for, this is what we believe and then people who share those values are going to gravitate towards you," he explained.

"If you ask me what I'm most proud about during my presidential campaign, it is that I think I sent a good signal, saying, 'here's what I believe in'. That talent that showed up. If I was just doing a global executive search, I wouldn't have found all these young people who ended up working on my campaign.

"It would have been impossible … even with some outstanding Salesforce tool."

Part of the challenge the world has currently is that a lot of existing institutions have not been sending out the right signal, which Obama said leaves people frustrated.

"I want for example young people to go into government. You can make amazing things happen in government, and you could do so much good, but if the signal we're sending the young people is everybody in government is corrupt and everybody is fighting all the time, and nothing ever gets done and it's inefficient, etc etc, young people won't gravitate," he said.

"I want young people to be entrepreneurial.

"But if big businesses are sending a signal [that they're] all about the short term, quarterly earnings, cutthroat, we don't care about the environment ... we're just trying to squeeze out a profit, there are going to be some people who are attracted to that, but what I find in this next generation is the best people are going to say, 'you know what, I am entrepreneurial, and I believe in the market, and I believe in technology, but those values that are represented there I don't want to be a part of'."

Obama said it is true in all big institutions.

"The talent is there, they just don't feel like the institutions are representing them," he said.


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