Political, business leaders can look to each other for lessons in success - and failure
Politicians often promise to "run government like a business." But, as Ogden Nash wrote, that's "one-way thinking on a two-way street." While not many CEOs would aspire to run their businesses like the federal government (although they might enjoy the power of taxation), there actually is a lot that business can learn from the public sector - particularly about managing change. Having straddled the worlds of politics and business - in Senate and White House jobs and now as a business consultant - I have watched President Bush wrestle with global change and have thought about the lessons business leaders can learn from his successes and failures.
All CEOs - whether in government or business - understand that, when big change is bearing down on you, you can run, but you can't hide, so you better figure out how to manage it and communicate about it. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush recognized that the US was caught up in a vortex of global change. Unlike Neville Chamberlain, he had no illusions that this country could avoid being sucked into that vortex. Like corporate CEOs talking their employees, shareholders, customers, and suppliers through tough mergers, Bush worked all of his constituencies - Congress, the media, the public, and the world community - to gain their confidence and garner their support.
But in developing and selling his response to 9/11, Bush faced the challenge all CEOs face - trying to take a long, strategic view while keeping a close eye on short-term results. For corporate CEOs, those short-term results are quarterly earnings, while for America's CEO, they are the latest poll numbers. President Bush has based his geopolitical strategy on a very long, historic view of world events, but has also kept a close eye on his poll numbers - which, until very recently, have not been encouraging. As a result, he has done what many CEOs do in such circumstances: trimmed his sails. Like a corporate CEO shedding unwise acquisitions or unprofitable business units, Bush has recently acknowledged some mistakes, granted some of his opponents' points, sought advice from distinguished outsiders, and begun discussing imminent troop reductions in Iraq.
Bush's biggest mistake in selling his strategy was overselling it. Phantom WMDs, a hyped al-Qaeda-Iraq connection, and ludicrously optimistic expectations about the course of the war in Iraq all left him vulnerable to later criticism and ultimately undermined, not strengthened support for his strategy. Like Ken Lay and Steve Case, he made the mistake of believing his own hype - always a danger for CEOs.
In the world of politics and business today, change is faster, bigger, and less forgiving than ever before. Understanding how to see it coming and develop and sell a strategy for managing it is the greatest challenge facing both business and political leaders. They would both do well to look to the other field for lessons in succeeding - and failing.
Greg Schneiders is a founding partner of Prime Group, a consultancy that specializes in helping clients understand, plan, and execute change. Greg@primegroupllc.com