Bill Clinton and How to Use Convening Power

The best CEOs do it. Effective entrepreneurs do it. Middle managers who become change agents do it. Individuals with passion do it. Weak leaders are too timid to do it. On September 20-22 former President Bill Clinton is doing it.

Hold those scurrilous thoughts. "It" is convening large groups to tackle big issues and commit to action.

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) models the use of a widely-accessible but still-underutilized power in any sector or company: convening power. As leadership shifts away from hierarchical decisions-at-the-top-slowly-cascading-downward, to social networks and self-organizing, knowing how to use convening power becomes critical. Anyway, Bill Clinton is no longer the U.S. President, so how can someone without formal authority have a huge influence?

CGI has a big goal — to get traction on significant global problems, including jobs and the economy, resource consumption and climate change, education and the empowerment of women and girls. What's brilliant is that President Clinton provides the platform and enlightening speakers, but other people do the actual work of change. CGI uses a pledge model: Get members to make commitments using existing capabilities.

When President Clinton's foundation was formed, the first thought was to run its own projects. But the CGI convening model stimulates more action by more groups in more places. It gets people who already have their fingers on the levers of change moving quickly. Companies such as Procter & Gamble can get reinforcement for their work on healthy babies, for example.

On a small scale, that's what meet-ups do. They are self-organized vehicles for finding out who has the interest and capabilities and then getting something moving. Women's networks have started in many companies just because someone decided to host a breakfast and identify areas for problem-solving.

On a bigger scale, this model is used by courageous CEOs to morph the 15-person management committee into a 1500-person leadership cadre that comes together in one place, in fluid subgroups, to define issues and commit to solutions — like John Chamber's strategy meetings at Cisco. In another case, a company in trouble convened 35 top people for a leadership conference; post-turnaround, they convened 350. With 350, much more work was done on the spot, including policy changes and action commitments fully embraced by those who would implement them.

Nearly anyone can convene. Middle managers could bring peers to the lunch table and develop a positive action agenda to take to the top. President Obama could bring thousands of business leaders to the White House to pledge action for job creation (but he hasn't yet). To make this effective:

  • Think big. If you want people to show up, make the issues and promise of action highly compelling. If you don't have Bill Clinton's star power, get the nearest local equivalent, and network from there. That holds even if you're the CEO and can order people to come; you want their active involvement, not passive compliance.
  • Think beyond the usual suspects. CGI's annual meeting is held at the time of the opening of the United Nations but features private sector leaders. If your company resembles the UN, with a set of carefully-guarded territories competing for resources, then find ways to include people with an entrepreneurial spirit that come from different levels and create new groupings that cut across the usual territories.
  • Get to action. Seek public commitments. Here's where courage comes in. A high-level corporate committee to which I suggested a big convening as a way to implement culture change worried about whether a summit would turn into a gripe session, when in fact the opposite would happen: including people in solution-seeking would automatically change the culture.

In previous blogs, I've written about campaigns for change. Virtual communications and social media are great tools, but convening still matters. People feel the buzz, hear and reinforce the same message at the same time, compare notes, make plans to connect their plans. Dr. Donald Berwick (now Medicare head) created the 5 Million Lives Campaign to reduce the impact of preventable medical error and featured it in his Institute for Healthcare Improvement's annual forum; nearly 10,000 leaders came together to align their actions with campaign goals. Opportunity Nation, a non-profit coalition, hopes to do a similar thing around jobs and economic opportunity in November.

The best leaders convene conversations. They set the stage that enables others to develop solutions. Bill Clinton loves to talk and can wax eloquent, facts in hand, on nearly any topic. But he also knows the importance of getting other people to talk and act.

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