Becoming a project manager: how Michelle Obama found purpose in office

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Becoming First Lady of the United States put Michelle Obama’s life under an unwelcome and uncomfortable spotlight. Every move she made, item of clothing she wore, everything she said was scrutinised.

She found the role of First Lady strange and ill-defined, but she was determined to do something worthwhile during her husband Barack’s time in office. She wanted to be seen as more than a mother, but Hillary Clinton warned her off getting too heavily involved in politics, having experienced a public backlash when she tried to get politically involved as First Lady herself.

Michelle wanted a project. Something that she could lead on, develop, and achieve tangible results from. An organised and methodical thinker, she spent time before landing on a project that she could own: children’s health.

When Barack Obama took office, nearly the third of American children were overweight or obese; childhood obesity has tripled over the previous 30 years. The US was seeing record rates of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes in children. Something had to be done. 

The project needed to be planned and executed carefully in order to make it a success. One false move could create outrage and controversy. It wasn’t as simple as declaring war on sugary drinks and fatty school meals – that could result in a strong opposition from food and drinks companies, lobbyists and farmers. She needed to be smarter than that if the project was going to be a success.

Here’s how she made it work – from planning to execution – in her own words, taken from her autobiography, Becoming.

Planning the project

“Midway through 2009, my small team and I began...meeting with experts inside and outside government to formulate a plan. We decided to keep our work focused on children. It’s tough and politically difficult to get grown-ups to change their habits. We felt certain we’d have a better chance if we tried to help kids think differently about food and exercise from an early age. And who could take issue with us if we were genuinely looking after kids?

“We’d give parents better information to help them make healthy choices for their families. We’d work to create healthier schools. We’d try to improve access to nutritious food. And we’d find more ways for young people to be physically active.”

Bringing the team together

“Knowing that the way we introduced our work would matter as much as anything, I enlisted the help of Stephanie Cutter, who came on as a consultant to help Sam and Jocelyn Frye shape the initiative, while my communications team was tasked with building a fun public face for the campaign. All the while, the West Wing was apparently fretting about my plans, worried I’d come off as a finger-wagging embodiment of the nanny state.”

Setting goals

“My goal...was to make this about more than government. I hoped to learn from what Hillary had shared with me about her own experiences, to leave the politics to Barack and focus my own efforts elsewhere...I thought it was worth making a human appeal as opposed to a regulatory one, to collaborate rather than pick a fight. And when it came to the way families actually lived, I wanted to speak directly to moms, dads, especially kids.”

Launching the project

“In February 2010, I was finally ready to share my vision...I stood at a lectern in the State Dining Room at the White House, surrounded by kids and cabinet secretaries, sports figures and mayors, leaders in medicine, education and food production, plus a bevy of media, to proudly announce our new initiative, which we’d decided to name Let’s Move! It centered on one goal – ending the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation.

“We were taking on a huge issue, but now I had the benefit of operating from a huge platform. I was beginning to realise that all of the things that felt odd to me about my new existence – the strangeness of fame, the hawkeyed attention paid to my image, the vagueness of my job description – could be marshaled in service of real goals.”

The results

“A year after launching Let’s Move!, we were seeing results. We’d aligned ourselves with different foundations and food suppliers to install six thousand salad bars in school cafeterias and we were recruiting local chefs to help schools serve meals that were not just healthy but tasty. Walmart, which was then the nation’s largest grocery retailer, had joined our effort by pledging to cut the amount of sugar, salt and fat in its food products and to reduce prices on produce. And we’d enlisted mayors from five hundred cities and towns across the country to commit to tackling childhood obesity on the local level.

“I’d worked hard to help push a new child nutrition bill through Congress, expanding children’s access to healthy, high-quality food in public schools and increasing the reimbursement rate for federally subsidised meals for the first time in thirty years. As much as I was generally happy to stay out of politics, this had been my big fight – the issue for which I was willing to hurl myself into the ring.”

Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 8th Jul 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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