If I am Elected’

How will CEOs-turned-lawmakers translate their business acumen into the ability to successfully govern?

December 6 2010 by Dennis Zeleny


Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina lost, but a spate of ex-CEOs and private-business builders won high political office on Tuesday night and leapt feet-first into the world of governing. What will these accomplished executives find as they trade in their successful private-sector careers for strange new public-sector responsibilities in January?

Well, they’ll discover that politicking and sloganeering aren’t the same things as governing. And that leading a company – even a Fortune 500 multinational – can be a walk in the park compared with helping to lead the greatest nation on earth or a troubled state at a time of considerable peril.

While some of the highest-profile ex-CEOs failed to gain office, many others won their electoral battles and can be expected to carry the banner for this new breed of politician. They should be the first place that business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable turn for new allies on Capitol Hill amid the huge crop of fresh faces come January.

Company owners Ron Johnson, founder of a plastics manufacturer in Wisconsin who was elected a U.S. senator last week; Steve Southerland, a funeral-business operator who likewise will represent Florida in the House ofRepresentatives; and newly elected Illinois congressman Robert Dold, a pest-management entrepreneur, can be expected to bring a sharp-edged urgency to Congress about removing government obstacles in the way of success for small businesses.

Rick Snyder, the ex-Gateway Computers president who will become governor of Michigan, will wield a tremendous understanding of labor- and tax-competition issues that are at the heart of his state’s problems. And Rick Scott, founder of Columbia Hospital Corp. who was elected Florida’s governor, can rely on his experience as a cost-cutter to help the Sunshine State to a stronger fiscal plateau.

Whether Democrat or Republican, these business leaders will bring a formidable combination of skills and experiences to bear. And it’s likely that their impact will be felt at a time when money issues dominate public fears – and largely motivated their votes on Tuesday.

How can they parlay their business experience into effective action beginning in January?

First, they will need to take a page from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s playbook as he focused on reducing public-sector employment costs after he came into office last year. Putting style aside, by rolling back yesteryear entitlements and outdated work rules that taxpayers no longer enjoy in their own jobs, and thereby reducing the bulbous budget deficit overall, the new breed can accomplish their main mission in government. Many of the politicians they’re replacing have been uncommitted to solving this problem. But business leaders are used to making the kinds of difficult decisions that will be required.

Second, these executives understand how the economy really works, especially contrasted with the lawyer-heavy profession they’re entering. They need to immediately apply their skills in business exercises such as cost-benefit analysis and their aplomb at making tough decisions that involve difficult tradeoffs. Their new “shareholders” – the taxpayer – will hold ex-business executives and owners even more accountable than their elected colleagues for adopting this kind of approach, and their peers are likely to look to them as well. They must not squander the opportunity.

Third, business leaders understand and practice accountability by ensuring that they have competent staffs who can help them drive change. Accountability is one of the direst needs at every level of government these days, and ex-CEOs and lifelong entrepreneurs are experienced at surrounding themselves with the right people so that they can achieve it. They should no less pursue it in Washington and statehouses as they have in their businesses.

Fourth, the new victors with business backgrounds understand better than anyone else that their role is to reignite growth in one thing: jobs. Against the broad pessimism among the American people created by an unemployment rate near 10 percent, these leaders must bring the courage and optimism that animated them when they were building, guiding and running companies.

And one more thing: The seasoned business leaders who now are assuming spots in Congress are the best people to help their new colleagues understand the impact of government actions on business – and, in particular, the job-throttling effects of back-door moves by regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board and the Food & Drug Administration.

These are important and necessary agencies that do good work. But where regulators have become overzealous, leading the way in reasserting legislative authority over them might prove to be the most significant contribution ex-CEOs and business owners can make on Capitol Hill, especially right away.

While corporations can be as bureaucratic as any organization, strong CEOs and business owners are accustomed to slicing through the matrix at any point and accomplishing what they want to get done. By dint of their authority alone, obstacles fall in front of them. And in general, they are used to having all of the major constituencies they must deal with – board members, shareholders, usually employees and, very often, customers – aligned with a CEO in pursuit of success for the business.

Not everything will be so favorably aligned once these business leaders are in public office. In addition to retardant government bureaucracies, foes – with opposing agendas, ideologies and constituents — will abound who have the stature and power to thwart the most capable executive-turned-politician.

To overcome this business as usual, now in political office instead of the corner office, these executive pioneers must maintain the dynamism, determination and decision-making prowess that served them well in their careers, because it is precisely those leadership abilities that will enable them to make a difference inside of government.

And if they do, this year’s class of CEOs-turned-politicians will bring a clarity of purpose, an unprecedented energy, and unmatched capabilities to the offices they’re assuming. One thing is for sure: They can’t say they aren’t sure that the electorate wants from them.

Dennis Zelenyis senior vice president of human resources for Sunoco. He also has headed human resources for several companies, including Honeywell, DuPont, and Caremark.