Executive Careers Blog

Landing The "Big" Job: Lessons From The Campaign Trail


Where did the time go? The first Tuesday in November arrives next week, bringing to a close a Presidential election filled with twists and (down)turns, gaffes, hyperbole and, uh, wardrobe analysis.

Amidst it all, it can be quite easy to miss a simple fact: since the start of the primaries, Barack Obama and John McCain have been interviewing for a job. Granted, the job carries the title "Most Powerful Man in the World," and the "interviews" happen in the media, in front of a "panel" of hundreds of millions, but the principle remains the same.

Each candidate is doing his best to convince us that they are right for the job, and each is using different techniques to do so. Any interviewee could learn from those techniques but, given the focus on leadership skills, perhaps aspiring CEO's have most to gain from parsing the two campaigns—especially as the courtship period for a top job can often drag on for months, just like a presidential campaign.

Explaining the resume
One striking feature has been the different experience levels of the candidates, and the ways in which each has attempted to turn this to their advantage. As the elder statesman in the race, Senator McCain's approach has been much the same as any industry veteran's would be—playing up the notion that he represents a safe pair of hands, knows the industry and is capable of working within it, and making it work for him.

Senator Obama, however, provides something of a case study for those with less experience on their resume seeking to advance quickly. Rather than conceding the experience issue, Obama has attempted to reframe a perceived weakness as a strength—a classic interview technique. Decades of experience aren't as necessary, he argues, as a new way of doing business. A bold approach, it is perhaps more suited to an interview at an up-and-coming tech or new media concern—or a big firm that's hit the skids—than, say, a stable blue chip company.

Proving leadership
Regardless of employment history, no experience can prepare anyone for the full demands of the Presidency, and it falls to the candidates to prove their ability to lead. Both, therefore, have done what any good interview candidate should—dug out past examples that demonstrate some of the necessary leadership qualities to convince the panel they're up to the job.

And, just like the well-prepared interviewee, they didn't wait until the question was asked to think of an answer. The nuggets these candidates dug out—be they about time spent as a community organizer or on voting records—were crafted into well-polished gems long before they rolled off the tongue on the stump.

    • Obama leads McCain in 6 of 8 swing states

Playing to their strengths
Each candidate has also displayed another key interview technique—turning the "interview" to his strengths. While Obama is the master of the grand oration to deliver his pitch, McCain has been more at home with a "town hall" approach. Both techniques demonstrate that finding a way to be comfortable in advancing your case is important for convincing your panel that you're worth their time and attention. For some interviewees, that may involve using charts and spreadsheets to explain past performance and ideas for the future, while others may feel comfortable with little more than a pen and paper to sketch an idea, or choose to rely on the power of their words alone.

Get a good reference
Neither have the candidates forgotten one of the most important rules of the job market—getting a good reference. While there has certainly been no shortage of people willing to endorse or disparage either candidate, it's the vice-presidential picks that are the most telling. Perhaps the closest a candidate gets to providing a reference, the choices of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin have amply demonstrated some of the benefits and pitfalls in choosing one.

Leaving individual performances and politics aside, the VP choices have shown that a referee who backs up what a candidate says (as both to an extent have done) can be invaluable. However, a referee who makes an inappropriate or unsupportive comment (as both have also done) can cause serious harm to a candidate's prospects.

While neither Obama or McCain is likely to give up on landing the job until it's well and truly over, the time for displaying credentials, past achievements and future visions is all but gone, leaving each interviewee's fate with the panel. Unlike most interviews, though, we at least have a definite date for finding out who got the job.

Finally, there is one last lesson from the campaign for those seeking positions of power: disparaging your rival in the press may be an accepted practice in politics, but it's probably best to steer away from that particular technique in the corporate world!


Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com. Originally from Scotland, he now lives in New York, and has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe.

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