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. 

Brian Snyder/Reuters
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a Jan. 25 event in Miami. This is the cover story in the Feb. 20 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

Does the corner office prepare you for the Oval Office?

It's a central question of the 2012 Republican primary – and will probably remain so through the general election, if Mitt Romney hangs on to become the nominee. Mr. Romney, of course, says, yes, being a chief executive officer does prepare you to be president. So did Steve Forbes, Ross Perot, and before that, Lee Iacocca.

But a surging Rick Santorum and a defiant Newt Gingrich have a different view, at least when it comes to the former head of a particular venture capital firm, and President Obama will no doubt borrow some of their acidic lines and produce a few of his own, if an Obama-Romney matchup emerges later this year.

Yet America has no definitive answer to the question. As a country, it has had ex-generals as president, former governors, senators, an actor (Ronald Reagan), a onetime haberdasher (Harry Truman), a former tailor (Andrew Johnson) – even a hangman (Grover Cleveland, as a local sheriff, personally executed two men at the gallows). True, Herbert Hoover was a mining executive early in his career, and George W. Bush was the first president with an MBA.

But there has never been an American president who was a pure business executive or CEO, at least in the modern sense of the title. So perhaps it's time for a closer look at the proposition that running a company is a lot like running the country. What qualities would a chief executive bring to the job – and would they be a help or a hindrance?

First, some background. Back in 1979 when I was working in Washington, D.C., as a special assistant to the secretary of Transportation, I got a chance to see a business legend – and almost presidential candidate – up close and personal.

Congress had just bailed out Chrysler (the first time) using a package of loan guarantees, but the combination of an OPEC-induced oil crisis and inexpensive, well-made, fuel-efficient Japanese cars was threatening to swamp Detroit. Then-President Carter tasked my boss to go to Detroit, meet with the heads of the Big Three auto-makers, and come up with a package of programs and policies that could ease the economic pain that was afflicting the industrial Midwest.

The star of those high-level political meetings was Mr. Iacocca, the recently appointed chairman of Chrysler. He was smart, charismatic, and pragmatic. He not only knew how to revive the badly wounded Chrysler; he also knew how to talk to the American public.

Through a series of blunt, plain-spoken TV ads, Iacocca became the face, first, of his company, and second, gradually, of a renewed can-do American spirit. In the ads, Iacocca looked straight into the camera and challenged prospective car buyers with the kind of underdog bravado that seems hardwired into the American character.

"If you can find a better car," Iacocca said, "buy it."

Chrysler recovered (the first time) and Iacocca went on to become a national icon. So much so that in 1982, and then again in 1984 and in 1986, he was the focus of spontaneous "Iacocca for president" movements.

Why would Iacocca make a good president? The logic, as expressed in one Wall Street Journal article in 1982, went something like this: "If a Hollywood star can, why not a Detroit car salesman?"

In each case, the push for president fizzled, more because Iacocca wasn't interested than because he lacked the qualifications for the job. In his autobiography, Iacocca listed all the reasons he rejected the notion.

"I don't have the temperament for politics," he wrote. "I'm far too impatient. I'm candid to a fault, not a diplomat. I can't exactly imagine myself waiting eight years to see if we could get an energy bill passed."

Attributes that fit a CEO – but not a president. Since Iacocca didn't make the run, we've seen Mr. Perot, another straight-talking, no-nonsense business leader, actually run, twice. And in California, the state that gave us our lone actor-president, the political graveyard is littered with high-priced tombstones marking the failed campaigns of a number of wealthy CEOs who have sought to be governor or senator.

In 1998, businessman Al Checchi spent an estimated $40 million in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and finished second with 12 percent of the vote. More recently, Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, ran for the US Senate as a Republican, but failed to convert her business acumen into an election night win. And in 2010, Meg Whitman, former eBay CEO, spent more than $144 million of her own money in the quest to be California governor, only to lose. Her consolation prize: Ms. Fiorina's old job as CEO of HP.

Now comes Romney, the former head of Bain Capital, the Boston-based private-equity investment firm. Until his GOP opponents started trying to turn his tenure at Bain into an irredeemable defect – suggesting that he was a "vulture capitalist" more interested in making money than creating jobs – he had made his 30-year career in business the central narrative of his campaign, not his one-term stint as governor of Massachusetts or his role in rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Whether he is now able to reclaim that part of his résumé, at a time when the economy remains the predominant issue, may well help shape the rest of the nominating process and perhaps the election this fall.

Yet beneath all the slogans and invective that has emerged over the issue lies a deeper question: Are CEO and POTUS really compatible? This one question raises four others:

1. Are the skills the same?

"When voters size up a potential president, they look for evidence of strong leadership," says Jeremy Rosner. Mr. Rosner, who is executive vice president at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling and political consulting firm, worked in the Clinton White House and has handled political campaigns across the United States and in numerous countries around the world. "That can come from lots of places – from being a general, from government, and certainly from successful business experience. So it's not a bad qualification, particularly at this time when the overwhelming top concern of the public is the economy and jobs."

But, says Rosner, there are a few things that make the CEO-POTUS comparison slightly more complicated. "The job of the president goes beyond job creation," he notes, "including being commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world. And there are a lot of political tasks inherent in the presidency. To be successful, it's up to the president to create consensus, move things through the Congress, keep the states connected to the federal government, and perhaps most important, persuade people around him to do what he wants."

To make the point, Rosner repeats an oft-told story about the transition between outgoing President Truman and incoming President Eisenhower. Truman is cleaning out his office to make way for his successor, and pauses to shake his head a little sadly.

"Poor Ike," says Truman. "He's used to being a general. He's going to come into the White House, and he'll order people to do this and do that, and nothing will happen."

According to Rosner, "Politics has a unique skill set. You can't just translate your background directly from business."

That point of view is shared by Rick Schnieders, who retired three years ago from his post as CEO and chairman of Sysco, a $37 billion company and the largest food service distributor in the world.

"I don't think being a CEO would preclude you from being president," Mr. Schnieders says, "but in general, the traits aren't the same. In general, a CEO isn't going to have the same command of the political environment; if he's been doing his job, then he hasn't been out working in the political realm of congressmen, senators, governors. It's one thing to get involved peripherally in politics, but to have deep experience in that world is rare."

To Rosner, Romney may be emphasizing the wrong part of his résumé, but for understandable reasons. "Because of the Republican nominating process, he can't accentuate the fact that he was the Republican governor of a Democratic state or the role that he played in dealing with the politics of the Olympics and the International Olympic Committee. But those challenges are multifaceted. They involve money, security, politics, dealing with gridlock, and polarization. Those are more akin to being president than being CEO of Bain."

Not that Rosner minimizes the difficult challenges of running a company. "Having had some exposure to CEOs, I'm very impressed by them. They do hard and complex work, and they're required to be multidimensional in many ways. They need to understand the business, appreciate the legal requirements of their job, handle talent development, have an understanding of lots of different constituencies, and deal with the media. But impressive as CEOs are, the demands of being president or even the governor of a big state are even bigger."

And, says Rosner, there's one overarching difference. When it comes to jobs like the president or even a member of the cabinet, the work is essentially political – and in some basic ways that makes the job quite different from that of running a company.

"Don't forget what Max Weber said about the essence of politics," he says. "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

Which is why Iacocca couldn't imagine waiting eight years to try to fashion an energy policy.

2. Are all CEOs the same?

"It seems to me, first of all, that the title is too broad," says Michael Berman. Mr. Berman is president of the Duberstein Group, a Washington lobbying firm; previously he was an aide to then-Sen. Walter Mondale, counsel to Mr. Mondale when he became vice president, and an adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton. "There are CEOs and there are CEOs. For example, the CEO of Bain Capital has a limited number of employees, a relatively homogenous workforce in terms of skill, and they're all producing revenue in more or less the same way. Compare that to the CEO of General Electric. You really can't compare the two jobs. Someone with that kind of large company experience would bring more to the table as president than someone who's run a venture fund. But nothing equals government in terms of its size and complexity."

Or how little managerial control the president actually has over the federal bureaucracy.

"Think of the federal government as a large company," Berman says. "The vast majority of people can't be hired or fired."

Statistics gathered on recent federal agency firings underscore the point. In 2010, only 11,668 federal employees were fired – or .55 percent of the government's 2.1 million workers. And that's not just a recent phenomenon. When Jimmy Carter was president, he succeeded in passing a civil service reform measure designed to make managing people in government more comparable to managing people in the private sector. The actual results, however, have proved minimal. Today, when presidential candidates charge that civil service rules hinder the ability of government officials to fire people, there is some truth to it. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning website that examines the veracity of such claims, confirms that it's hard to get rid of problem employees because of civil service protections.

Some agencies, such as the Federal Com­muni­cations Commission and the Federal Trade Com­mis­sion, went through all of 2010 without firing or laying off a single worker. By comparison, say employment experts, the private sector turns over about 3 percent of its workforce every year.

"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."

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?

"Just being a CEO?" muses Rosner. "That's not enough by itself. Otherwise 'The Donald' [Trump] would be the front-runner."

So what else figures into the mix? "Personality," Rosner says. "Character. Steadiness."

And also some qualities and characteristics that CEOs can get away with, particularly if they stay out of the public eye – something politicians usually can't do. Some of the traits, for instance, that Iacocca mentioned as reasons he never ran.

"The public may be OK with the notion of an imperial presidency," says Rosner. "But they can't stand the idea of an imperious president. There's zero tolerance for a candidate who communicates a sense of imperiousness in how they conduct themselves in public. You want somebody who's not looking down on you and treating you like you're the stock boy at the bottom of the company."

In delving deeper into Perot's candidacies, Bennis agrees with Rosner. "The part of Ross Perot that was exciting was his entrepreneurial vision," Bennis says. "But there's another aspect to his personality, where he's the boss and he gives orders and expects others to follow them. To most voters, that's not appealing. It feels heavy-handed."

In other words, it's a complicated dance, a delicate balancing act. CEOs can claim executive experience, decisionmaking skills, and an understanding of how the economy works.

But they can't overbid their hands. They can't be perceived as overbearing, self-obsessed, or out of touch with or insensitive to the working reality of ordinary Americans. It's one thing to be The Boss, and something quite different to be The Man.

4. Even if they're qualified, are CEOs electable?

Barack Obama is the 44th president. That's 223 years without a single president who identified himself as a business executive or a CEO. Although to be fair, Calvin Coolidge famously said, "The chief business of the American people is business," It's also true, as Bennis notes, that the title "CEO" is a relatively new invention, having been coined in the mid-1980s.

But the question remains: Why not? Are too few business leaders interested in politics? Is the loss of privacy and the punishing process of campaigning simply too high a price for them to pay?

Are the skills and backgrounds too different? Do we use the metaphor of being "CEO of the United States" too loosely, when it isn't really the right comparison? Or does the American public have a problem with the idea of business leaders taking over the reins of government?

"When it comes to the office of the president," says Rosner, "the public has split feelings. On the one hand, we hear voters talking about how they wish the president would just get the job done. We need a businesslike leader who can cut through all the Washington, D.C., bureaucracy and make things happen. On the other hand, voters also appreciate that it's a highly complicated job. Just having a good résumé and appealing sound bites are not enough."

To Bennis, the leadership skills of a top-level CEO in a globally competitive world and the requirements of being president are very similar.

"All leaders, whether in business or government, need a higher level of cognitive capacity, the ability to understand the forces at work and the constituencies or stakeholders that shape your ability to succeed. Leaders have to be 'first-class noticers....' They have to be able to communicate with and align people both inside and outside their organizations."

"Leaders of business or government have to be trustworthy," he adds. "Trust is the basis for all communication. Without it, all you have is empty words on paper. The jobs aren't identical. But they're similar enough that a CEO who has the capacity to learn could be president. There are clearly CEOs today who are more qualified than people who have run for president in the past."

The issue, says Bennis, is electability.

"This isn't a board of directors choosing a CEO," he notes. "It's the people electing a president. And with the talk today of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, that makes it hard for any CEO, unless he's had other experiences, something that is more philanthropic or has a public purpose, like running a nonprofit or a university."

For example, Bennis says, take two of the country's leading CEOs, Jeff Immelt at General Electric and Alan Mulally at Ford. Bennis's assessment: Despite their obvious talent and qualifications, "the political climate would immediately rule them out. It's not because of their character or competencies," he says. "It's the role they've played in business and the public's attitude toward that."

Bennis's concern is supported by public opinion surveys. In 2007, before the collapse of the economy, the Harris polling firm, in an annual confidence survey, found that only 14 percent of Americans said they had a great deal of confidence in business leaders, while 29 percent said they had hardly any confidence at all.

By 2009, when the bottom had dropped out of the economy, the numbers had fallen even more, with 11 percent expressing a great deal of confidence and 35 percent having hardly any confidence. Moreover, in a 2011 Gallup poll that rated the honesty and ethical standards of people in 21 occupations, Americans put "business executive" in the bottom third.

Yet all this doesn't mean Romney's business background is radioactive. Indeed, polls have consistently showed that Americans believe he could do a better job of handling the economy than Obama – most recently in an ABC News/Washington Post poll, albeit by a narrowing margin, 48 percent to 45 percent. The same poll found that, overall, Romney's business experience is considered a substantial net positive – 48 percent calling it a major reason to support him and 12 percent a major reason to oppose him.

Not everyone trusts their auto mechanic, but when their car won't start, they still head for the local garage. Romney & Co. are betting Americans will want to do the same with the economy – tap a CEO to fix it. In the end, voters may be left asking themselves one question about the notion of a CEO as president: Even if the CEO is qualified, do I really want to vote for him?

For Romney, that question may shadow him all the way to November.

• Alan M. Webber is former editorial director of the Harvard Business Review, cofounder of Fast Company magazine, and author, most recently, of "Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self."

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