Despite dedicating a substantial amount of my professional time to cable news punditry in recent years, I continue to teach a university course on management and to provide coaching and consultation to executives in industries ranging from health care to financial services, and I generally don’t recommend that people – even very smart people – be given CEO positions as their first jobs in management. As one moves his or her way up through the managerial ranks of organizations, progressively taking on responsibility for overseeing and coordinating the work activities of more and more people, one learns certain lessons that are generally prerequisites of success at the CEO level.
In my experience, this is fairly obvious to most participatory shareholders in American corporations, but in 2008, it apparently wasn’t obvious to most “shareholders” in America – its voters – who essentially hired President Barack Obama to serve as the country’s “CEO” with little or no executive experience. Now, four years later, those same voters have an opportunity to evaluate the president’s performance and to decide whether to retain or replace him in the job. As they prepare to participate in that process, I recommend that voters review certain lessons, such as the following – lessons best learned prior to assuming the mantle of a CEO – and assess whether the president has since mastered them.
Lesson No. 1: A successful CEO is both effective and efficient. When President Obama took office, his foremost mandate essentially was to develop and execute a “turnaround” strategy for America. Key benchmarks for the president’s effectiveness in this regard include employment and economic growth, both of which have remained chronically anemic. Thus, the president’s tax-and-spend strategy has been profoundly ineffective. That strategy has also been profoundly inefficient, ballooning America’s annual deficits and national debt to historic proportions that threaten the long-term fiscal health of the nation.
Lesson No. 2: A successful CEO makes tough choices. When President Obama took office, he essentially told Americans that neither he nor they had to make any tough choices – that he could massively expand government without massively expanding the deficit and the debt – and then proceeded to expand all three without so much as a budget, let alone a balanced budget. Budgets require tough choices between competing priorities. Only recently has the president even discussed a budget – a budget predicated upon employment-stifling tax increases and which would still be nowhere near balanced.
Lesson No. 3: A successful CEO thrives on competition. When President Obama took office, he promised to make health care affordable for all Americans, sacrificing neither the quality nor the quantity of available care, essentially by reducing – perhaps ultimately eliminating – competition in the health-care industry. While the president’s plan has yet to be fully implemented, successful CEOs know that enhancing free-market competition would be far more likely to maintain quality, encourage innovation and control costs – that government never has given American consumers better, more-abundant and less-costly goods or services than the competitive free marketplace has.
Lesson No. 4: A successful CEO projects strength. When President Obama took office, he essentially diverged from past presidents and pursued a more apologetic, conciliatory approach to America’s adversaries around the world – “speaking softly and carrying a small stick” (as opposed to the “big stick” advised by President Theodore Roosevelt). Successful CEOs know that when you allow yourself to appear weak, the only way to convince others that you’ll project strength is to actually project it. The better strategy – articulated by President Reagan as “peace through strength” – is to avoid having to project strength by appearing consistently and unequivocally willing to project it.
Lesson No. 5: A successful CEO attends to multiple priorities simultaneously. When President Obama took office, he seemed, and has continued to seem, excessively focused on engineering a government takeover of the health-care industry and on redistributing wealth. Successful CEOs know that even when you have personal priorities, you still need to attend to organizational priorities – to make sure, for example, that your State Department isn’t saying no to its diplomats’ requests for additional security overseas, and that your Justice Department isn’t sending assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels (otherwise, you can end up with murdered diplomats and murdered Border Patrol agents).
President Obama argues that when he took office nearly four years ago, America’s problems were so big that no president could have accomplished more than he has. I disagree. If he had mastered certain lessons, such as the ones above, prior to taking office – or even in office – I think he could’ve accomplished far more. In other words, if the president knew how to solve America’s problems, I think he’d be solving them by now.
He may very well have done his best, but the learning curve from entry-level manager to CEO is steep, and we simply can’t afford four more years of on-the-job training for this president. Fortunately, there’s another candidate interested in the job, a candidate whose career indicates mastery of the lessons above and many others, which portends, in my professional judgment, a far greater likelihood of success in the position. Now more than ever, executive experience matters.