At 8:30 am on May 7, 2018, in San Diego, President Barack Obama waltzed out on stage at the Association for Talent Development’s annual international conference and exposition. Obama shook hands with ATD’s president and CEO, Tony Bingham, and after a lengthy standing ovation from the 10,000 or so attendees finally subsided, the two men sat down for a wide-ranging interview that lasted just over 60 minutes.
The anticipation was palpable. Conference goers started queuing up to hear what the former president had to say at 5:30 am. The line to enter the San Diego Convention Centre was over 5,000 people strong—many deprived of caffeine—hours before the doors opened at 7:45 am.
If you are unfamiliar with ATD or its annual conference, it was a room full of professionals that often act as the glue in today’s organizations. They are the ones who help to develop employees in their current roles as well as for future positions. Without the ATD crowd of professionals, not only would learning fail to exist in our organizations, the talent development pipeline would shrivel up like a grape might in the San Diego sun.
Obama’s track record of empowerment, giving young people the responsibility to grow and learn, as well as his penchant to advocate for education—in all of its forms—was an easy draw.
The structure of his time on the ATD main stage was simple. Bingham would ask a question, and Obama extemporaneously answered it. There was no formal keynote speech or any prepared notes. It was off-the-cuff Obama, something that he seems to enjoy.
As I listened in and started to connect the dots to some of his thoughts, I could not help but land on three key takeaways:
“Think about what you can do, not what you want to be,” said Obama. He urged leaders to consider the concept of purpose rather than the quest for a fancy title. I tend to agree with Obama and advocate as such in much of my work. As leaders, when we can help those we are leading tap into their best selves, we are helping them develop a sense of both personal and role purpose.
When we set an example where our singular mission is to climb the corporate ladder, what is the real goal in that title attainment? Is it to attain a comfy corner office, or a six/seven-figure salary, or more headcount, or a larger departmental budget? The result will likely be a career that ends up not only feeling hollow but empty of genuine meaning.
Obama was crystal clear. If you seek out a life and a career that is purpose-driven, goodness will result in the outcome. When we seek the trappings of money, power and entitlement first, is that a life worth living?
The second takeaway centered on inclusiveness. While Obama did not come out and use the word, he painted a rather colorful portrait of inclusivity by the use of an anecdotal story.
Obama indicated that on an almost daily basis during his White House years he would sit around a table of some sort surrounded by various leaders of departments, agencies, lobbyists, stakeholders, and so on. More often than not there was an external ring of people; a group of aids and assistants that “actually did the work.”
Obama said, “These are the folks that would be passing notes, and information, and so on to the leaders at the main table.” He joked that it was these people in the “outer circle” who were the ones that knew what really was going on.
However, Obama’s inadvertent piece of advice was to be as inclusive as possible even in the moment of decision-making. Obama relayed that he would often call upon those sitting in the “outer circle” for their opinions, ideas, and feedback. What this can teach all of us is a concept known as skip-level inclusivity.
There are considerable gains to be had when we not only listen to those that are at the “main table,” but with those who report to the leaders of the main table. When we skip over our direct reports and seek out information or opinion from those further down the chain, it can provide excellent and often unknown insights that might make your final decision more accurate. It can also keep everyone on their toes.
The final takeaway from President Obama had to do with values, and precisely how we cannot lose sight of being a values-based society.
When we are honest, kind, responsible, generous, respectful and useful, good things are bound to happen. Obama reminded us that when we are values-based, it also means we are entitled to our opinion but not our own facts.
As he looked to his left, he joked, “This is a table. We need to all agree that this is a table. It’s a fact.”
He ended with a few key lines.
“Values will get you through hard times and good times. They are the things that give meaning and purpose to what you do. Organizations need to help people become better performers with what is in their hearts.”
It is hard to disagree with his message on stage at the ATD Conference.
“Progress is not inevitable,” he added. However, I believe it can become inevitable if we instill purpose, inclusivity, and values into our daily way of operating.