How the Sausage Gets Made at the Whitehouse: Obama Staffers Reflect

The other night, I stumbled on this video from the University of Chicago, with a panel of Whitehouse staffers including Jon Favreau, former director of speech writing for President Obama, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, former press secretary for First Lady Michelle Obama, Chris Lu, Cabinet secretary and former assistant to the President, and Elizabeth Jarvis Shean, former White House research director.

All worked in the Obama Whitehouse.  Some (like John Favreau) also worked on the campaigns.

I have always been interested in how other companies and organizations structure themselves around understanding what’s important and juggling multiple (and conflicting) priorities.  Is there anywhere this is more pronounced than the Whitehouse working with the President?

If you can think of an example, I’d love to hear about it!

Here are some interesting tidbits about how the Whitehouse operates:

  • John Favreau says that yes, Air Force One is as frickin’ cool as you’d imagine.  Replete with multiple offices, a conference room, workout facility, kitchen, and a surgical operating room, he describes Air Force One as a pretty amazing place.
  • Things are routinely hectic, and much is made up on the fly.  I found this interesting because I often fall victim to the fallacy of believing that everyone else has it together – when in reality, we all face similar struggles.  The panel gave some examples where the world’s affairs threw them off course and they had to make things up as they went along.
  • Similarly, I found it interesting that while many assume there’s a grand strategy behind everything the Whitehouse does — sometimes, there’s not.  I find this is also true of companies we look up to.
  • The world’s problems don’t fit nicely into a 9-5 schedule.  I can’t imagine a more stressful and nonstop job than working in the Whitehouse.  The panel gave examples of how it is sometimes difficult to disconnect, especially because natural disasters have no plan or schedule.
  • Arriving at the Whitehouse in 2008, the team was astonished at the state of technology: old Gateway computers, no wireless interest, and limited cell coverage.  Apparently this has improved over the past few years.
  • The team was also surprised by the work environment: whereas they were accustomed to big open work spaces like those they had on the campaign or other high-tech companies, they found the Whitehouse to be composed of many small offices, with great distances between various parts of the team. As a result, communication slowed down, and tasks became more difficult to carry out.
  • Becoming President was Barack Obama’s first opportunity to “work from home.”  His children had never experienced a time where their father worked from home.  I never really thought about the President as “working from home” – have you?

What do you think?  What’s most surprising to you about how other companies and organizations run themselves?  What surprises you about the panel’s insight into how the Whitehouse runs?

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