Building coalitions

Harvard Business School once invited a group of its Silicon Valley alumni together to hear the results of its year-long, n=9,000+ executive survey on US competitiveness. By halfway through the meeting, we concluded that they were not trying to raise money, they were actually trying to raise a coalition.

Now, this particular business school is among the most unapologetically accretive organizations you’ll ever do business with. They make no bones about the fact that their  objective is to own the market in the production of powerful businesspeople, and it’s fairly clear that the end goal of all of it is to compound the influence and wealth of the business school out into the indefinite future. And they are outstanding at it.

This event was different. They did three things really well:

  1. They led with value and sense of purpose: We’re going to show you the results of work we did, on issues we think are critical for the country and for your business; we’re bringing our top guys personally to tell you; and we’re not asking for anything, we think that having you there in the audience is the most important thing we could ask for. That kind of invitation opens your mind and generates genuine interest.
  2. They did not just invite the usual suspects, the most powerful and famous people they could find, of which there are plenty. The invitation-only audience had a high degree of industry and functional diversity: a broad range of alumni that were now execs in the Valley, of literally all ages, including government and not-for-profit. That’s what you do when you’re trying to solve generational problems, where you’ll need people to stay on the problem for decades.
  3. Once they had laid out the problems of US competitiveness as portrayed by the survey’s results (more on that later), they told us what they think we could do to help — as execs, with our own businesses, and not simply by trying to influence politicians — and they asked that we stop waiting for the government to fix it and instead make a commitment of what we would do. That’s what you do when you want someone to feel empowered about problems much larger than they themselves are.

We would bet that most of the people in the room did come away feeling part of something larger than themselves, and more willing to consider cooperative action. They’re more likely to help in the future because they were at this meeting. Long-term seeds were sown. Nicely done, and a great example of the use of soft power.