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Raising the bar

Promises of candidates usually compete with one another in a political campaign. After the oath-taking, it’s all about delivering on these. Unfortunately, it’s only the winner that must deliver on the bar he raised.

The key to being rated well on surveys does not entail working longer hours or having pictures on the front pages. It’s all about exceeding expectations. This can entail pushing the starting line forward or moving the finish line closer. The race belongs to the one with a shorter track to run. And the track is set by the expectations raised.

Golfers win games against more skillful competitors by simply having bigger handicaps to put them ahead of the game. It’s like having additional points even before the game starts.

The expectations raised in the campaign (say, the price of rice and gasoline) or the hiring interview for corporate recruits (revenue targets and share of market) need to be lowered to attainable levels. The process starts on Day One. It entails a number of options.

Lower the goals. Anyone rated against budget targets understands that the higher the numbers, the lower the chances of a performance bonus. Instead of striving to be a great CEO, declare you merely want to be a good one. If low hanging fruits are easier to pluck, why not plant a smaller tree?

Emphasize problems but call them “challenges.” Still, having too long a list of obstacles can make the board wonder if you’re the right person for the job when all you see are negatives. Just a few challenges will do. (Throw in regulatory risk which is out of your control.) A situation that presents no hurdles to clear may lead to the conclusion that nothing is broken, so why bring in a fixer? Problems should not be laid at the doorstep of the predecessor. The new leader needs his help too.

Appeal for team support. This request need not be couched as powerlessness — I need a lifeguard at the beach. Give credit for victory to the staff (without mentioning specific names) — it’s a team effort. This puts some burden on a broader base of people and converts many from passive critics to active defenders. Never mind that you appointed most of them.

Avoid hard deadlines. To promise to solve the price of gas in 60 days is a guarantee for failure. Afterwards, the pump price will be there to haunt the chief. It’s better to promise setting up a process like a summit to put an action program in place within 60 days.

Lowering expectations elicits little cheering. Mentioning problems and obstacles tends to disappoint followers. People are looking for miracle workers and visionaries whose rhetoric lifts their spirits. It is these orators that garner applause on day one. Much of the loathing for traditional politicians (trapos) has to do with their penchant to over-promise and under-deliver. They are doomed by speech writers who go for memorable turns of phrase. Quotations from Churchill or Thucydides (One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old) are sprinkled all over.

In the climb to power, however, whether in politics or the corporation, humility is the first casualty. The Darwinian struggle up the hierarchy dictates that only the fittest, or those who claim to be, get to the top. How can those with modest goals even make it to the screening committee? Anyone who opts for lowering expectations is tagged a loser.

Even newcomers to power make their presence felt, bawling out those who dare to apply regular rules to them, like showing one’s ID at the reception. (Don’t you know who I am?) Rather than assuming a low profile, the take-charge leader raises expectations.

A truly shrewd executive or politician prefers to be underestimated so that his adversaries do not hinder his success.

The top vote getter in the Senate has no problems with lowered expectations. A complete sentence with subject, predicate, and direct object delivered with a straight face is sure to wow the gallery. Not being expected to do a good job provides an advantage. Then, even the most modest of accomplishments can invite a perception of excellence. (I didn’t think he was ready.)

Still, in the real world, overpromising is necessary to get the top job. Can disappointment be far behind?

TONY SAMSON is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda

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