A People Management Lesson From Bill Clinton: It’s the People, Stupid

When Bill Clinton was strategizing his successful presidential run in 1992, his campaign came up with three topics to help focus his message, especially in the post primary push into the election. He focused on:

  1. Change vs. status quo
  2. Health care
  3. It’s the economy, stupid

Although President George HW Bush was fairly popular with several foreign policy victories, the recession at home lingered and Clinton continued to hammer home a weakness. That, with a little help from Ross Perot, pushed Clinton over the top.

With some in HR bruised and battered from the recession, we can often lose focus with so many priorities floating around the world of the new normal. Take a page from Clinton’s book and focus: It’s the people, stupid.

Is this about a seat at the table?

Gaining legitimacy in the board room means you’ve got to know your place in there as well. While I believe (and have advocated) that HR people in critical roles should be able to understand key business issues, I also believe that this has led to lack of focus. So you might find an HR person scrambling to understand a financial statement or the terms of a merger but they don’t know their own workforce inside and out.

This isn’t a pep talk about getting a seat at the table. This is about thinking critically about what value you bring to an organization.

Should you know the difference between EBITDA and a P/E ratio? Sure, but no one will care about your knowledge of basic finance terms if you can’t tell people how reducing pay by 5 percent and eliminating bonuses is going to impact your workforce.

MBA vs Certification vs Who cares?

There has also been this war about a MBA versus certification or a Masters in HR. I’ve got a bias, and if I’m investing serious money into my career, I think I get the most bang for my buck by going for a MBA. The argument doesn’t matter if you can’t execute in the role though.

I’ve met folks in all walks of HR who have succeeded and failed with any number of certificates and degrees. The people who do well have a very strong focus on one thing: the people side of the business.

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They may not be an expert on reading an income statement or understanding website conversion, but they understand the impact that it has on the workforce.

People and business knowledge working together

At one particular job, we had a major slowdown in business. So we started talking about where we were, what the prospects for the future were looking like, what business was already in the pipeline, and where our staff level needed to be adjusted to. There was some fierce discussion with sales and operations arguing for a risk level that I wasn’t comfortable with. We brought in an accountant to talk about how cash flow was starting to take a hit and that we also didn’t want to take out additional financing.

Without understanding how the business was run, I couldn’t have been very effective in that conversation but I still brought along some value. But if I didn’t know the people function in our company, I would have been completely useless.

Did I need to know how a projected run rate was calculated? Not necessarily, but I definitely needed to know what budget adjustment meant for staff levels and how we could minimize the loss of talent while still meeting our goals. And all of this was on top of other strategic objectives of being a top employer even in a down economy, and continuing a culture of shared success when people were going to be sharing in some of the failure.

Think people first and then other competencies later. Your co-workers will thank you for it.


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