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Premier-elect and B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark on election night in Vancouver, May 14, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Premier-elect and B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark on election night in Vancouver, May 14, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

LEADERSHIP

Five leadership lessons from Christy Clark's surprise victory Add to ...

Consider the challenges of losing market share, hearing critics bash your brand, coping with internal staff upheaval and watching your main rival woo consumers with a product that’s disturbingly similar to your own.

For B.C. Premier Christy Clark, those were her political challenges – in business terms – as her B.C. Liberal Party began the 2013 election trailing its NDP rival in public opinion polls. But Ms. Clark and the Liberals managed to stage a surprise victory, winning a majority government in Tuesday’s election despite near-universal predictions of defeat. Here are five key lessons for any business person facing hurdles:

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Lesson 1: Deliver a consistent message about the future

Ms. Clark displayed her leadership qualities by being persistent, narrowing the focus and setting ambitious goals, management experts say.

At the outset of the campaign, she said her party would mark up a historic victory, later dubbing herself the “Comeback Kid” in advertising. Few outside the party believed it – until the votes were counted.

In post-election analyses, that victory is being attributed, in part, to her relentless hammering at the notion that only the Liberals could safeguard British Columbia’s economy.

“The person who is able to articulate an idea in a clear, convincing and consistent way induces people to follow them,” said Jim Fisher, vice-dean of programs at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “You don’t want to follow somebody unless you trust them, and you can’t trust them if they keep shifting messages. The power of saying things over and over again is that after a while, people start believing you. Staying on message resonates.”

Ms. Clark drove home the vision that exporting liquefied natural gas will be a crucial part of British Columbia’s economic growth, creating jobs for families and leading to paying off the province’s debt in the long term. While critics labelled her vision pie in the sky, Ms. Clark articulated an LNG future that offered the promise of better times ahead, Mr. Fisher said.

He said the B.C. Liberal Leader was relentless in the way she portrayed her party as best-suited to manage the economy, even though her goals may prove to be too lofty. In the private sector, an executive could set the goal of doubling revenue in three or five years, but even if sales turn out to be slower than expected, it is still pertinent that a company show that it is pursuing a growth agenda, he said.

Lesson 2: Don’t shy away from being realistic

Employees won’t buy into unrealistic corporate goals, Mr. Fisher cautioned. “Workers have to see a bridge between words and some sort of action,” he said, noting that once an executive outlines a vision, employees will want to see those growth initiatives supported.

Ms. Clark took aim at New Democrats as she warned that NDP Leader Adrian Dix couldn’t be trusted to oversee economic pressures. The Liberal Party was criticized for its negative message, while the NDP chose to avoid harsh campaigning. In B.C., nice finished last, and negative – the Liberals would say realistic – campaigning won the day.

The Liberals took advantage of being underdogs entering the campaign and aggressively attacked the NDP with negative ads, said Tirtha Dhar, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

For business, negative ads are relatively rare, and usually reserved for underdog contenders (as was the case with Ms. Clark). But executives must realistically outline both the rewards and pitfalls ahead when times are bad, Mr. Fisher said.

Lesson 3: Be realistic about the short term

Executives are better off delivering bad news, even though it would hurt morale in the short term. In Ms. Clark’s case, she staked ground as the person who would guide B.C. through rough economic times. “CEOs would want a message that says we can deal with the negatives,” Mr. Fisher said. “They could say, ‘It’s going to be painful and difficult and not everyone is going to make the journey.’ The message you want to get across is to be realistic, but also optimistic that if we all work hard and accept the pain, we will deal with a problem. We don’t have to be defeated by it. You don’t wallow in it or ignore it.”

Lesson 4: But don’t shy away from long-term ambition

Greg D’Avignon, president of the Business Council of British Columbia, said Ms. Clark figured out that even though there are many hurdles to clear before even one major LNG proposal comes to fruition, the possibility of revenue from new energy projects isn’t farfetched.

Whether it is a small business or large one, it takes strong leadership to have the conviction that you will be able to act on a vision, despite many challenges, he said. “Part of leadership is creating aspirations that even if you fall short, it focuses people’s attention and gets them moving in the same direction,” Mr. D’Avignon said. “She was incredibly persistent and consistent in her vision in terms of B.C. keeping its fiscal house in order and thinking about the next generation. She talked about the opportunities set in front of us, particularly around LNG.”

Lesson 5: Go retail

Townhalls are a good way to keep in touch with employees, though business leaders caution that CEO styles vary widely, so some will be better than others at speaking with workers in small groups. In some cases, it might be better to designate a vice-president to lead a townhall.

In the case of courting voters, Ms. Clark knew the power of images. She wore a hard hat on one campaign stop and dressed casually in a classroom of children on another stop. She gave the impression of someone who is willing to listen, Mr. D’Avignon said, whether to workers on the assembly line or kids in school.

Follow on Twitter: @brentcjang

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