From Mitt Romney to George W. Bush, the first "MBA president," White House contenders are quick to highlight business experience on their political resumes. Now billionaire entrepreneur-turned-successful-mayor Michael Bloomberg is mulling a presidential bid. But do CEOs really make good politicians?
When Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper speaks, he sounds part-politician, part-businessman.
"There are three common things between running a restaurant and a city," Hickenlooper says, without much prompting, when you get him talking about his previous career. "You never have enough capital, you have a diverse group you need to mold into a seasoned team, and the public is always ticked off about something."
By the speed and precision of his delivery, you can bet that Hickenlooper has unleashed the same metaphor on more than a few occasions since he took office in 2003. His message, though, is clear: Politicians can learn a lot from the private sector.
Hickenlooper knows first-hand. In 1988, he turned a passion into a livelihood when he and several co-founders opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company brewpub and restaurant in the then-neglected Lower Downtown (LoDo to Denverites) corner of Denver. As the group's chief executive, Hickenlooper would have a hand in launching two-dozen similar brewpubs across the nation over the next decade-and-a-half.
Today, as Denver's second-term mayor, Hickenlooper's approval ratings hover around the 80 to 90 percent range, proving the business world can indeed produce worthy politicians.
Hickenlooper is by no means alone. His New York counterpart, billionaire entrepreneur Mike Bloomberg, has completed such a successful transition from the business world to the political arena that supporters are publicly urging him to make a third-party run for the presidency. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor now making a run at the Republican presidential nomination, and Jon Corzine, a former U.S. senator and current governor of New Jersey, are other hotshot CEOs who leveraged business success into political clout.
But do businesspeople make natural -- and most importantly, effective -- politicians? Like most things political, the answer is not so absolute.
"There has long been the bias that leadership is leadership, management is management, and it doesn't matter what sector you're in," says Don Kettl, director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's also the thinking that government management isn't any good, and if we ran government like the private sector we would be better off."
While both statements may be true under certain circumstances, Kettl says, they are too often accepted as fact without much further exploration. "We've had people from the private sector who have had great success in the public arena," he says, speaking of the transferability of leadership and management skills. "But there have been other people who have gone down in flames because they thought they could come in, issue orders, and use the command-and-control approach like in the private world."
"The problem is that government is far more complex than almost any private business, with the number of employees, cross-players, accountability problems, the amount of accountability, and there's no market testing," he adds. "Look at Congress. Congress doesn't act like, or think of itself as, a board of directors."
Yet on the campaign trail, whether or not business acumen actually translates into political aptitude is often less critical than how well candidates simply market the experiences on their resumes, Kettl says. This election season, especially with concerns about the economy abound, Romney has often branded himself as an agent of change -- citing the successful turnarounds he steered as CEO of the management consulting firm Bain & Co., and as president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee during the run-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics. (He also served as the founder of Bain Capital.)
It's a familiar refrain. President Bush, of course, campaigned as the "MBA president," often touting the degree he received from the Harvard Business School in 1975.
That said, "MBA training in the '70s was wildly different that anything taught or learned by MBAs in the 2000s," Kettl points out. But, Bush "succeeded in convincing people that he had hardheaded experience and that this would matter."
Maria Binz-Scharf, an assistant professor of management at the City College of New York, says one of the major adjustments for private-sector employees is learning to achieve goals amidst a "perennial budget crisis" when they make a move into government.
"In government, you can get to money if you are creative and really look for it, but it's still very different," Binz-Scharf says. While risk-taking in the private sector often spurs innovation, a leader moving from the business world into politics will often also have to confront employees who have been trained to follow the road most traveled, she adds.
"There is a clear focus on avoiding mistakes [in government], because mistakes are very costly," Binz-Scharf says. "Everything is focused on this belief."
Hickenlooper certainly concedes that he faced a learning curve upon his inauguration. "You have to slow everything down," he says. "If I walked into my restaurant and decided I wanted to put something on my menu, the next day it's on the menu."
While Hickenlooper still approaches his job with a sense of urgency, he grasps the import of all-inclusive decision-making processes -- now more than ever. The plans for two of Denver's most ambitious long-term projects involved significant public input that took time but improved the end product and lead to public approval, the mayor says. (The first was the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness and the second was for a $378 million justice center.)
"The final product was very different and much improved from what the city staff thought was best," Hickenlooper says. "A lot of times, efforts are approved if you have a good process." At the same time, he's quick to tout skill sets he developed in the private sector that, in his view, have transferred seamlessly into the public realm. Upon taking office, Hickenlooper immediately focused on building relationships with dozens of mayors in the metropolitan area. With a collaborative foundation established, all 32 mayors supported a 4/10th of a cent sales-tax hike that voters would later approve to help fund the FasTracks regional rail system. Perhaps most importantly, the mayor says he has concentrated on treating his constituents like customers.
"In the restaurant business, you do everything to make sure that customers who are unhappy at least leave feeling like they were heard or respected," Hickenlooper says. "Now, I tell our tax auditors that they can do their job without being a jerk about it…. Our goal is to make our citizens the most contented with city government in the country. We want to give them the maximum benefits for the dollars invested."
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