Home World Business From the U.S. Senate to Diplomacy—John Kerry’s Leadership Lessons

From the U.S. Senate to Diplomacy—John Kerry’s Leadership Lessons

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HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has spent more than 40 years in public service – from his decades in the U.S. Senate to leading the State Department from 2013 to 2017, and now as the first-ever U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. In this episode, he shares the leadership lessons he learned over those years – from how to influence people and bounce back from defeats, to staying focused on important goals over the long term. You’ll learn how Kerry approaches leadership transitions, and what he does on his first day leading a new team. You’ll also learn why compartmentalization is an important skill for any leader – whether you’re on the global stage or learning to manage your first team. This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in October 2018. Here it is.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green Carmichael. We often look to the leaders of private companies to give us advice on how to manage people. But there are many lessons to be learned from the public sector as well. Today’s guest has served in a number of high-profile public roles — from an assistant district attorney to a U.S. senator to Secretary of State. But John Kerry started out in the U.S. Navy

TAPE: It was the military training from start to finish that taught me management skills that taught me leadership, accountability, hierarchy – all of those things that are critical to any kind of organizational structure. And everybody knew what they were doing and had to do if somebody else couldn’t do what they were doing. You learned to take care of each other and move quickly; exercise command decisions. Also just being on a ship – having responsibility for a large division on a 535 foot ship that has a huge crew – those are great lessons. John Kerry is the author of the book “Every Day is Extra,” and he recently sat down at his home with Harvard Business Review senior editor Alison Beard. She started by asking why he decided to go into public service.

JOHN KERRY: It is the single, most effective, best way to get real things done, with Uncle Sam, paying the bills of your telephone and your air flight and your day-to-day existence. I mean when you’re in…

ALISON BEARD: More so than in the foreign service or?

JOHN KERRY: When you’re in an outside advocacy group, you are constantly raising money and I was there for a while, in the politics of organizing and working to change things from the outside. And you spend so much of your time just trying to keep the organization alive. And I felt that the best way you could do things as make the government work. Go into the public arena and build the movement through the United States Congress, through the laws that we pass, through the relationships between senators and states and the branches of government. I thought that was really the most effective way to do it and for a long period of time it has been. It is.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I was struck by the similarity in your description of becoming captain of your first crew and your first day as Secretary of State. Talk to me about what a great leader does on the very first day they’ve taken over a team.

KOHN KERRY: Well, I don’t know about the definition of the word “great” with respect to that, but certainly a competent and hopefully effective approach is to listen, but also to come in with a clear, defined set of goals and standards that people understand right up front, early on. I think one of the greatest deficits of leadership is not to lead; not to have an ability to command respect for the notion that you know where you’re going, you know where you want to go, but you’re respectful of the other people. It’s not just domination by virtue of being there and being appointed. If people don’t respect you, if they don’t think you know what you’re doing, if they don’t know – if they have a sense of doubt about what the mission is or how it’s going to be carried out, you got a problem. I think that’s true on a military mission, I think it’s true in politics, in life and business or whatever.

ALISON BEARD: So, over the years you’ve assembled and managed many, many teams – campaign teams, your Senate office at the State Department. How do you pick the people who work for you?

JOHN KERRY: I look for people who are smarter than me. And that’s not too hard to find.

ALISON BEARD: It must be slightly hard.

JOHN KERRY: No, I think that, I look for people who will say no to me. I look for people who have their own mind. I rely on my own confidence and my own judgment to have people around who will give me contrarian points of view, but I want to see all the pluses and all the minuses and then make the cut. And that’s the job of the decider. And what your quality of decision making is and how you approach it is part of what will make you a leader and separate you. But I think – I mean I really do look for people who know a lot about one thing or another or about what we’re trying to get done. And I want people who are strong-minded, people who will not just say what I want to hear or they think I want to hear. I want people are going to offer creative, exciting, thoughtful approaches to big challenges, and then when I’ve made the decision be ready to go out and be a team player and help implement it.

ALISON BEARD: Right. It used to happen that congressman and senators themselves could find common ground and do it without sort of an electoral uprising. So, what was happening before that’s not happening now, that needs to be brought back? You know, what are some of those principles?

JOHN KERRY: Bipartisanship.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, but how do you, how do you achieve that?

JOHN KERRY: You achieve it with people who make the decision that that’s important to the country. You achieve it by people standing up courageously and saying, “I’m not going to get dragged into this party orthodoxy of one tribe or another tribe within our political structure. I’m going to fight to do what’s best for the country and to keep the bipartisanship of the United States Senate on track.” John Mccain and I did that, and I wasn’t alone among the people who did that. John Mccain did it with Russ Feingold and campaign finance. He did it with other people and he wasn’t alone back then. There were other senators who were prepared to engage in that kind of bipartisan activity. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, right? I mean, there are plenty of examples.

ALISON BEARD: You talk in the book about compartmentalizing. Is that something we need to do more of?

JOHN KERRY: Well, you need to always compartmentalize because there’s always a vote the next day. Life doesn’t end the day there’s a vote that you lose. And I’m one of the things that I talk about in the context of the title of the book, “Every Day is Extra.” It means not just that you’re lucky if you’re alive and others weren’t and you got a responsibility to do certain things, but it also means there are a lot worse things, folks, than losing a debate or losing the vote or losing an election. And when you have that measure, you begin to put things in their proper perspective. The American people elect representatives to go to Washington and get the job done. And when we don’t have a budget, year after year, when we don’t change something that everybody knows is broken, like immigration and you don’t do it because you want to drive the issue as a wedge issue in order to exploit politics then we are are complicit in what we get. And right now what we have in the country is gridlock, dysfunctional representation, non-representation in many cases. And everybody’s angry about it. Right, left, center – people all get it.

ALISON BEARD: Right. It’s interesting because in your role as Secretary of State, you did need to bring people to the table who were arch enemies and felt they had absolutely nothing in common.

JOHN KERRY: Well that’s the other part of compartmentalization. In the context of diplomacy, you know that what Putin is doing – what Russia has been doing in our elections – is absolutely unacceptable. What Putin has done with little green men running around in uniforms that have no insignia on them in Ukraine is unacceptable. What he did in Crimea is unacceptable and we stood up to that. We brought in place very strong sanctions. We had a profound impact. But the problem hasn’t been solved for a number of different reasons. But you have to compartmentalize that because at the same time as that’s going on, you’re working with Russia to get the chemical weapons – the declared chemical weapons – out of Syria. You’ll working with Russia on the Iran nuclear agreement, where, by the way, Russia was actually extremely helpful. So, you compartmentalize, you have to do it. Ronald Reagan compartmentalized when he focused on the “Evil Empire,” but then called on Gorbachev to meet with him in Reykjavik at a summit and decided we’ve got to get rid of these nuclear weapons. We’re locked into a wasteful, insane arms race. That’s compartmentalization in a way that results in positive outcomes. It’s the only way to run a large nation. It’s the only way to be effective as a global leader. It’s the only way to make important things happen on the global stage.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, there’ve definitely been some huge setbacks that you’ve had in your life, not least, the presidential election. So once something like that happens, how do you reset and recover and come back?

JOHN KERRY: Well, I think you look at what the alternative is and you have to consciously decide that’s a stupid alternative. I mean, I just made the decision I was not going to be bowed by this. I was not going to stop. I was not going to quit. All the things I was fighting for didn’t suddenly go away. And in the end, you know, the election wasn’t fundamentally about – I mean I didn’t look at it is affecting me as much as it affected the things we were fighting for, the issues we wanted to advance, the agenda that we were pursuing. And that agenda continues to need champions – people who are going to fight for it, people are going to continue. So, the idea of just crying and my teacup and disappearing and becoming a hermit or pulling away from the field seemed to me to be a pretty stupid choice. And I just consciously decided I’m not going there. I’m going back to work.

ALISON BEARD: When you write about healthcare and passing Obamacare in the book you talk about not making perfect the enemy of good, which I feel like is advice that lots of people in business settings could use too. So tell me a little bit more about the benefits, but then also the downsides because obviously there’s been a lot of criticism.

JOHN KERRY: I think that the example of Ted Kennedy, who talked about how he had a choice and he was trying to get, way back early in his career, he was trying to get a partial healthcare bill passed. And the healthcare community and other advocates and other members of Congress said, “No, no, no, no. We’ve got to hold out for single-payer and we’re going to get single-payer, which is a fully paid government kind of program.” And what happened is they got nothing. And what they were choosing between would have advanced the healthcare system by 30 years, it would have been closer to what we ultimately did with Obamacare, but it wasn’t full-fledged single-payer. And Teddy faced that and he thought they ought to try to do it, but they made the mistake of not doing it and they got nothing for 35 years. So, I argued and others argued when the healthcare bill came up, and again you had people arguing “Oh, this isn’t enough. We need to get more.” No, sometimes – sometimes – you need to take what you can get and build on it. And that’s a very important lesson to anybody, in anything,  I think. That you can, you know, you can cut off your nose to spite your face. Right?

ALISON BEARD: Right. You talk about your time in the Senate and you talk about working relationships and working the process, especially when you were a junior senator without much authority or influence. So, talk about that, working the relationships and working the process.

JOHN KERRY: Well, a lot of politics, I mean all politics, I believe it’s not just local, like Tip O’neill said, it’s also personal. Politics is personal. People care about whether or not you get them, you understand what their lives are like, whether or not you can empathize with their lives and see how difficult it may be in certain circumstances, or other things. And it matters that you’re there for people when they’re in crisis or when they’re down or so forth. That’s the personal part of it. If you build relationships in the Senate where you recognize the difficulties your colleague may be having in a different kind of state with a different set of issues with a different constituency, with just a different political life. If you understand that life and if you can get that person to understand you care about them and their future – you’re not just asking them to walk the plank, you’re sensitive to how you could shape whatever it is you’re working on to help them. Boy, you get a lot of things done. If people like you, if people have a sense of who you are, people will be more willing to try to help. So, I believe that the building of a relationship in which it’s not all take, but there’s give, takes you much farther and understanding the other person’s and trying to shape a solution that meets the other person’s needs, those are personal steps that make an enormous difference in outcomes.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Another line that struck me – I think probably because it really hit home personally – was “I thought that the work would stand for itself.” You were talking about I think the 1996 election?

JOHN KERRY: Yeah. Those are the things that I’d accomplished. I’d accomplished, I thought, a fair amount in the United States Senate. I’d been working on a fair number of different issues and had been, I thought, fairly effective at getting things passed. But people here at home didn’t know about some of them. And that’s partly because I didn’t spend the time sort of selling it, beating your own chest. It was a little bit – I just figured, hey, people follow the process, they’re going to know that this happened. And it just didn’t work that way. You’ve got to, for better or worse, it’s a process of educating people. It’s a process of getting the word out and, and creating enough awareness of what you’re doing for people that they feel connected to you.

ALISON BEARD: So, you have had one of the more demanding careers that anyone in the world has had, and you also have a family. So, I’d love to hear about your principles for balancing those two.

JOHN KERRY: Well, I’ve been very blessed to have family that were extremely supportive of what I was doing and helped me to make up gaps when there were gaps and sometimes there were gaps. I mean, I missed a game on a Wednesday or a Friday that I wanted to be at or I missed a play or something. And there was agony when you did, because those are the things that make about a difference to children, needless to say. I worked very, very hard at getting home. I never spent a weekend in Washington DC for 18 years. I would fly home and I would fly home sometimes during the week in order to be there for an event and then go back to Washington and you know ir made an enormous difference to me. And on weekends, certain weekends, I’d be back home and, and the kids would be with me and I’d relish that and we had a lot of fun. But it was always complicated because there were always demands. If you’re in public life, there isn’t any given day where you couldn’t be somewhere where you think, “Hey, it’s important for me to be there.” And you really have to learn how to say, “No, I’m not doing that. Or that’s not as important as I’m, you know, pretending it is or think it is.” I’ve tried very hard to be there for them and I dedicate the book to all of my grandchildren and to their parents.

ALISON BEARD: I should note also that we’re in your home with your lovely Labrador who is so happy that you’re home, I guess after a stint away.

JOHN KERRY: Yeah, he’s my – Teresa calls him my son. And he, I hope, I don’t think he’s been breathing into the mic.

ALISON BEARD: No, no, no. But he’s adorable. And just laying on our feet, which is so sweet.

JOHN KERRY: He’s fabulous.

ALISON BEARD: So obviously carrying on the career that you’ve had, maintaining your family, even decisions to sort of start public life after your service in Vietnam as a protestor and then go to law school, you know, these were all decisions that you were able to make because you came from a very well-off family and then continued turn a lot of money. And so, you know, lead a privileged life. So, what advice would you give to people who don’t sort of come from those means?

JOHN KERRY: Let me correct one thing with you because I want the record to be clear. Yes, I came from a very defined kind of privilege and there’s no question about that. But as I say in the book, we were not rich. And I was comfortable. I didn’t have to worry about where the next meal would come from, but I never had enormous amounts of independent funds. And so, it was important for us. We lived within a budget. We lived within our means and there were times in my life when I was living paycheck to paycheck, like a lot of people. So, I understood those challenges, believe me, and I was never in the private sector for a long period of time. I was briefly practicing law. I made some money while I was practicing law. But that was not my choice in life. I wanted to serve, I wanted to be in public life. So now obviously, my wife is very well off but that’s her, you know. So, my representation of people has been based on my own upbringing and my own circumstances which have always been sensitive to how hard it is for some people to try to be able to make ends meet. And I still remain connected to that.

ALISON BEARD: Absolutely. My advice is going to be a sort of, what’s your career advice to people who are starting from nothing?

JOHN KERRY: Well, my career advice is if you want to be – I think public life has changed now. I think you can go in and out of public life in ways that you couldn’t have previously. I mean the sort of the ladder of working up through the Congress and into the Senate and so forth and so on. I think that’s changed. So, I’ve advised a lot of young people, look, if you really wanted to go into public life, you need to make sure your family is going to be able to manage it and that you’re going to be able to manage it within the context of your family. And maybe you ought to go into business for five or 10 years and make a certain amount of money and know you’ve got a cushion so that you cannot cheat your kids with respect to school or you know, find yourself in difficulties that might affect your choices as a, as a member of Congress or whatever it is you choose to do. I think you can easily go run for the Senate and run for Congress nowadays or anything else without having gone through the ladder necessarily the same way as a lot of other people have. I think that’s partly because the media has changed, it’s also because the political playing field has changed. So, my advice to people is, uh, you know, have a community, have a base of some kind, be engaged in civic community – not necessarily in electoral office. And then when you feel ready and when you feel – please get involved, please run for office. Please be involved because we desperately need more public citizens. We need more people who come in or go out for whom it’s not necessarily the lifetime every day, but who care about making our democracy work. And I think a lot of people unfortunately have been scared away from it because of the public scrutiny because of the disclosures, the intrusiveness, the transparency. A lot of people just don’t want to live that way.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Given the dysfunction that you currently see in our government, what role do you think that business plays in society? You know, do you think that people can have corporate careers and make a difference in that way?

JOHN KERRY: Without any question whatsoever. In fact, I think it is under described and underrecognized. I know fabulous corporate citizens at the high level of CEO or Chairman of the Board all the way through the ranks of a corporation. And increasingly corporations are exercising responsibility that is making up for the deficits of government. The private sector I have learned through the years – I mean, I talk about this constantly – that the private sector moves faster, has much better channel of decision-making in many cases because they don’t have to worry – you know, it’s not a democracy and therefore they can move. The CEO can make the decision, this is what we’re doing and he rises or falls or she rises and falls by virtue of that decision. And it may affect their individual retirement plan or stock holdings, but it, you know, if at all has done well and works out right, they can make an enormous difference for children, for schools, for infrastructure, for countless numbers of choices. And I’m working with a number of those companies and have worked with those kinds of companies, encouraging them to do more. I mean, there are institutions, I mean Bank of America today – and I serve in the international advisory board. And that institution has committed $125,000,000,000 to energy, sustainable energy and to helping in the transformation and does a lot of other work with respect to necessary public sector enterprises that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily make it. I think all corporations have that responsibility and our country will be stronger and better and people frankly will be, in some cases, less hostile than they are in the political structure towards corporate engagement because they see them constructively trying to make a difference.

ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Thank you so much for your time. It’s really been a delightful conversation.

JOHN KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you very much for your patience.

ALISON BEARD: Oh no, the dog is wonderful.

JOHN KERRY: He was the principal diplo-mutt. He met a lot of foreign ministers.

ALISON BEARD: Oh, so he was with you the whole time you were Secretary of State?

JOHN KERRY: Oh yeah, whole time I was Secretary of State, he was in the department.

ALISON BEARD: All right. Well thank you so much again. It’s been a pleasure.

JOHN KERRY: Pleasure.

HANNAH BATES: That was former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — in conversation with Alison Beard, in an episode of the HBR IdeaCast presented by Sarah Green Carmichael. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more podcasts, articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, find it all at HBR.org. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, Curt Nickisch, Anne Saini and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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