Leadership & Management70

One Mission, One Team

Leadership Lessons from the White House Communications Agency

One Mission, One Team: Leadership Lessons from the White House Communications Agency

June 15, 2023


What is the single most powerful driver of business agility and human innovation? In his years as a leader across industries, John has found the answer to always be an organization-wide unity of purpose. When considering the topic of 'unity', the White House may not be the first organization that comes to mind. Yet, despite the constant churn and turnover of political climates, there is undeniable unity of purpose, passion, and perseverance within those walls. In this talk, John will share lessons learned while serving as a leader at the White House Communications Agency, where the mission was clear, the unity was present, and the motto was always, “One mission, one team!”


One Mission, One Team (PDF)



About the Speaker(s)

John Tanner
Founder and CEO, C4G Enterprises Inc.

John is the CEO and co-founder of a fast-growing Organizational Design and Business Management consultancy based in Virginia. His company, C4G Enterprises, works globally with organizations ranging from start-up to Fortune 100, coaching and training leadership on the values and practices required to grow business agility, improve product quality, and ensure sustainability of operations.


Video Transcript


Thank you.

It was five o'clock in the morning when I got the call.

By 5:15, I am racing north towards DC. There's a flash behind me that tells me that I just got another speeding ticket on the way to work. If you know DC, you know what that means.

I hightail it, though. I get to the outer gate, which is like a toll booth with armed guards and show my credentials and they let me through. Then I get to the inner gate, not like a toll booth at all, and those guards are really armed with really big things. You got to sit there, not while they check your ID, but all the other things they have to check, and then you get inside and you park. Then you get to the outer door of the building, and it's a biometric thing, and you got codes and things like that, then you get to the inner door of the building, and it's a biometric thing, you got codes, things like that. You got… who you are, what you know, something you have, that sort of stuff. Then you get to the secure part, and from there, you've got three or four more doors, and the last one, I swear to you, looks like a bank vault from some cartoon that you're hacking or breaking into just to get into the office.

About 5:45, that's how long it took to get from my house, screaming there. I sit down at my desk and I open my email for the emergency, and it turns out… President Obama… had been double charged for a sandwich, yet again, on Air Force One. I know. It's terrible. When you think about…

the White House Communications Agency, you probably think about whitehouse.com. You think about some of the press release stuff we see and all that. That's not what we did at the White House Communications Agency. I was part of the internal team that basically, what does the President need to run his day?

What do his team need?

Some of the service that supports him.

We were the backbone that supported. We were the voice of the White House, and we helped with things like that. Why do I tell that story of all the stories of the White House to open it up?

Because I want you to understand, this place, it ran like a business.

We had a CEO, and I don't know if you guys realize this, but the President fills out expense reports. I certainly didn't realize this till I worked there until the infamous double sandwich issue. I don't know if he's got an assistant somewhere, but I love to believe he's sitting there and he's going, "I didn't ask for cheese on that." I'd love that. But that's our day. We go to a cubicle. After you get through all the madness to get in there, you're in a cubicle, you're doing normal stuff, you're doing normal work. But the thing I think that separated us is A, the iconography. That's hard to miss when you walk through the door, right? But B, more people than in this room and we all had a singular purpose.

A, to be the best at what we do, but B, support the administration because we knew that that was the house of democracy in the US and then partners across the world. We knew we were there for a unifying purpose. We had every branch of military, National Guard, Coast Guard, we had contractors, we had government civilians, we had consultants, we had a Microsoft guy. I don't know why we had a Microsoft guy, but he was the Microsoft guy. But we had them all and they were all in one room.

When something happened and it doesn't matter if it was a sandwich or if it was something more global, we were all there and we were all on a mission. Now, when you think about Washington DC and you think about the harmony in that place, I feel like maybe it's not that one mission deal. This is generally what you expect. I don't know if you guys watch the news lately. I try not to because I want to stay sane. But politics in America, you think of an organization like that and you think of all these different people, different cultures, different branches of service, different upbringing, different needs. You think that they might be like that because you're literally going in and you've got a President there and people have feelings about that, and especially in a polarized society. But what we knew is as we stepped through that door, we were there to support the same mission, the same purpose.

When I see this picture, I don't think about the White House or honestly any federal org that I've supported. How many of you guys work in finance or with a financial company?

You know this picture then, right?

A couple of years ago… We're going to put the White House, put a pin in it. We'll get back to it in a minute. But a couple of years ago, I was working with one of the world's large banks, a global one, It was beautiful. You walk through the doors, they've got these towers of glass and they've got a cafe where they literally brought in gourmet chefs like Michelin Star Chefs to run this thing. They had happy hour would open in their giant cafe at 4 PM, and then all the bankers and the coders and everybody go have their thing in the cafe. You had gourmet coffee in the morning and you would drink a cup and it would feel like heaven, and then you'd sit at your desk and hate your job all day long because nobody agreed on anything and they didn't know why they were there. That's the problem.

I've had another experience, a different financial organization. You guys have probably recognized the slogan, or at least some of you in the room will. They had T-shirts that said, "We make home possible." When you walk through the door, the cafe was under construction. The buildings were a quarter mile apart and there was a bridge you walked in the rain that didn't have a roof. It was not the most elegant place. It wasn't that multi-billion dollar complex of the other financial institution. But I was happy every day I went to work. The difference was, one, they talked about shiny stuff, Michelin Star Chefs, and profit motive. The other wore shirts saying, "We make home possible." In that organization, I was part of the modernization effort for it. When we got together, we didn't talk about technology, AWS DevOps, we did all those things. We didn't talk about Scrum and Agile, we did those. Portfolio rationalization, we did those. We got together, wearing our shirts, and we said, "I'm here to make home possible. I am here to make it work for people." That's why I'm here. I do a job, I go to my desk. But the mission is clear. If the other financial institution had that mission, that purpose that I create liquidity, I create capital so our nation can expand, so the world can expand, so people can get loans. If I showed up with that mindset, plus the Michelin Star Chef, it'd be all right.

The only difference between the two financial institutions is their investment in the purpose and the mission and the understanding of why they were there. I've seen that working with automotive manufacturers, tooling vendors, and everywhere else, the main difference between successful organizations that I enjoy waking up and going to work to, even if the coffee is terrible —I don't really think about it anymore— is the unity of purpose and mission. I want to see this, honestly. When I was at the White House Communications Agency, I saw this a lot. I saw us reaching in to do it. It's not just because the President's there at the end of the day and he's got to have his sandwiches. It was because we knew we were part of something greater. We knew when we showed up, our work made a difference. Be honest here, how many of you should wake up in the morning and go, "I'm going in today because my work makes a difference"? A couple of people. You're brave. I've woke up in the morning and said, "I'm not going in today or ever again because this sucks." It's not a way to build a sustainable business, right? It's certainly not what you want. But when we think about it, when I think back to every

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