Does America need a CEO in the Oval Office?
Mitt Romney has been both vaunted and vilified for his business background. Here's how running a corporation really compares to running a country.
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"When you're dealing with the federal bureaucracy, in any department there are going to be a huge number of people for whom that operation is their life's work," says Berman. "CEOs are used to getting things done pretty quickly. That's not how the federal government operates."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures CEOs and politics
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Warren Bennis agrees that not all CEOs are alike. At 87, Mr. Bennis is one of America's deans of leadership, a former university president, author, and now university professor and distinguished professor of management at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "Take Paul O'Neill, the Treasury secretary under George W. Bush," Bennis says. "He was CEO of Alcoa, but when he took over at Treasury, he was out of the [dealmaking] flow. He wasn't willing to play the game. He kept expecting things to be logical."
Mr. O'Neill's example, says Bennis, is one case where even prior government service and the experience of leading a large and complex company didn't provide the right training for success in running a government department. Compare that with a more uniform, single-purpose leadership task – like running a private-equity fund.
"With a private-equity fund, you have a homogenous operation and very clear and somewhat repetitive practices aimed at one objective," Bennis says. "You put money in, turn a business around, and sell it for more than you paid for it. So it really depends on what the actual CEO experience is. Another comparison would be Ross Perot, who did run for president. His background was as an entrepreneur, which gave him a brilliant capacity to communicate with people and excite them."
The point that entrepreneurs have more in common with politicians than large company CEOs do is echoed by Joe Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass. Professor Badaracco, whose father was president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, also makes the distinction between different kinds of CEOs with different types of experience and areas of responsibility.
"When you talk about a CEO running for president," he says, "I'd be inclined to ask about the specifics of that person's business experience. It's one thing to run a traditional large manufacturing operation, for example. That may tend to be more of a top-down firm, where the CEO issues orders from up above. That might be relevant in the White House when the president is giving orders to the military, say. But the rest of government is much more free-floating, with power bases shifting from one issue to the next."
But, adds Badaracco, today's entrepreneurs may have quite a bit of experience that applies to the world of politics. "Think about what entrepreneurs have to do to start a company, and what it takes to run for public office," he says. "There's an element of risk-taking that applies to both. These days, nobody asks you to run for office; you have to put yourself forward with the same kind of energy and imagination that an entrepreneur has to have. Entrepreneurs have to put a team together to get started. They're in a network more than a hierarchy. And they've got more experience with responsibility, but not necessarily traditional power."
3. Are there some CEO qualities that don't translate well to politics?