Tap Dancing to Work

How Obama manages

November 21, 2012: 11:26 AM ET

He runs a tight ship, based on a few simple rules.

By Jia Lynn Yang

This is a sidebar that ran with What Obama Means for Business in the July 2, 2008 issue of Fortune.

FORTUNE -- No drama. When Barack Obama was selecting his closest advisors, he told each person he wanted zero drama -- meaning no back­stabbing, damaging media leaks, or anything that would detract from the campaign. To do that, he picked a team of people with even-keeled temperaments who would set the tone. Exhibit A: Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe. "In my experience, in most political campaigns the people at the top are frequently screamers and yellers, and there's a lot of drama," says Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist. "With David, you do your job, get it done, and keep your head down."

Praise those who don't expect it. At rallies, politicians will typically thank the local mayor or governor who's lending an endorsement. Obama emphasized his grassroots approach by bringing organizers onto the stage as well. Valerie Jarrett, a campaign advisor, remembers that in the days leading up to the Iowa caucus, when Obama invited local organizers onto the stage, "It was a very direct way of saying to everybody, these are the people who are making the difference in my campaign. For him to recognize them so publicly sends a strong message."

Make every person in a meeting participate. Like a tough law professor, Obama will call on staffers who haven't spoken up. "He assumes if you haven't said anything, you might disagree," says Jarrett. "I can't tell you the number of times he's looked at me when I haven't said a word, and he looks right in my eyes and says, What are you thinking?"

Establish a plan and stick to it. National finance chairman Penny Pritzker said Obama decided he wanted to run the campaign like a disciplined business. "We were going to encourage a culture of fiscal responsibility and efficiency." Last fall, when donors started worrying about polls showing Obama far behind Clinton, the campaign stuck to its guns. "He had a core belief in the strategy they laid out," says John Rogers, CEO of Ariel Capital Management. "And he kept everybody on board."

Give feedback that's clear, direct, and immediate. "If he's happy, you know it. If he prefers to do something different, you know it," says Jarrett. "I think there's a lot of CEOs who do not give straight and direct feedback. He's not shy about being clear." Jarrett adds that Obama expects a level of decency from his staffers too. "People would feel embarrassed to say something unkind around Barack."

Allow new ideas to come from the bottom up. The idea for Obama University, a unique training program for first-time fundraisers, came not from campaign leadership but from three supporters, who brought the idea to Pritzker. The program has workedso well that one newcomer who went through the training has now hauled in$250,000.

Genuinely listen to those who disagree with you. "He really questions his advisors aggressively," says Jeffrey Liebman, a Harvard professor and one of Obama's economic advisors. "He wants to see disagreements aired in front of him." Once he makes a decision, his staff knows to move on to the next challenge. Says Jarrett: "You don't sit and say, Why didn't it go my way?"

 BACK TO: What Obama means for business

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