What insights can President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Richard Branson impart about running your small business? Those three were the powerhouse speakers addressing the crowd of 11k at the Qualtrics X4 Summit in Salt Lake City last week. Qualtrics is an experience management software company, recently purchased by SAP for $8 billion.

Neither the conference nor the speeches were political, though Obama did take the opportunity to call on us to respect our democracy and each other.

“We live in such a polarized time,” Obama said. “If you watch Fox News, you’re in one reality, and if you read The New York Times, you’re in a different reality… It’s been challenging to have a common conversation… If we listen to the voices that help us rediscover our common hopes and dreams and values rather than constantly gravitating to those things that push us apart, that often times are designed to make us angry…we can accomplish big things.”

Obama also reminded us “Things like rule of law, competence, and facts are not partisan ideas. Nor do they happen automatically. There must be citizens who insist that they happen. A democracy is a garden that must be tended to carefully.”

Here were insights from their comments helpful to small business owners:
  • Overcoming your fears: “What’s happened to me over the last decade is a shedding of fear,” said Obama. “(there were) times when you were constrained by ‘Man, I don’t want to screw this up, let people down, be seen as a failure … I was a better president in my second term, not because of policy, (but) you get enough reps and familiarity that you stay focused on the task and not on how you are doing the task.”
  • Dealing with your ego: “By taking your ego out of what you do, it liberates you and makes you more able to do it,” said Obama. “You get more accomplished … one of the problems with people in big jobs is they start feeling like, ‘I have to project that I have every answer.’” He said he was not afraid to ask questions instead of acting like he knew everything and rely on those who were smarter than him or had more expertise.
  • Being clear about your goals: Oprah particularly emphasized the importance of ‘intent.’ “I don’t do anything without thinking about what I ultimately want the energy, the motivation I’m putting into it (to be) … The intention is the force field that carries from the action and all the way to the end result.” Oprah told her staff, “Don’t come to me with an idea unless you know why you’re doing it.”
  • Hiring: Both Obama and Branson gave insights on hiring. “I was good at making sure that the people who are working for me, with me, were there for the right reasons and there was a core integrity to what they were doing,” said Obama. And Branson: “Find somebody that’s better than yourself and leave day-to-day (issues) to someone else …“don’t try to do everything yourself.”
  • Employee treatment: “All that business is is a group of people,” said Branson. “We (at Virgin companies) do everything we can to insure we have the happiest people … the reason people leave companies is because they’re not being listened to.” He also decried the lack of required paid holidays in the US—the worst holiday policy of any advanced economy. ‘The amount of holiday that people get when they work for American companies, I think, is something of a disgrace.”
  • Company culture: “If you can build a culture where it’s about solving the problem, or getting the work done, as opposed to who’s getting the credit or ‘how much money am I making out of this’ or what have you, that builds a transparency that allows for good decision-making because there’s clarity about the goals and objectives and values at the heart of the organization,” Obama said. “And it also means that you don’t have big scandals and indictments.”
  • Purpose: “The show wasn’t about a show nor is any of our work really about the work,” Winfrey said. “It’s about how you use your inner self, your one grand, big, precious life in service to the world … Ultimately you want to be able to live out the fullest, highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being.”

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2019

This article originally ran in USA Today on March 13, 2019