CEOs Take Center Stage in the New Political Regime

ceos-3“The early focus should be on policy areas that need attention and where you can get some things done,” Odland says. “The focus should be on bipartisanship to do it. This requires getting back to regular order in Congress and well-functioning governance. Americans want the logjam broken.”

CEOs can help by leading “efforts to compromise,” says Tim Hebert, CEO of Atrion, a Providence, Rhode Island-based IT-services provider. “We are all Americans. We need to do things where the majority overwhelmingly is going to benefit, so compromise is important. That will be viewed with disfavor by people who have a doctrinaire view of things, so it will be difficult.”

3 / Reform business representation. One thing many CEOs believe in deeply is corporate lobbying efforts. “While one or two CEOs may advocate a position, their views are much stronger coming from a larger association that represents hundreds of companies in a similar position, employing thousands of workers,” says Dan Sandberg, president and CEO of Brembo North America, a Tier One auto supplier based in Plymouth, Michigan.

At the same time, White says, the cover of a group also “can protect CEOs from too much exposure as individuals.” And by being “apolitical, these groups “can be most effective in today’s highly polarized political environment.”

Yet Brooks argues that CEOs must push to upgrade corporate lobbying organizations such as the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The business community has been ill-served by these existing organizations, the conservative New York Times columnist told Chief Executive. “They got too close to a version of the Republican Party that has just been displaced” by the electorate’s views on trade and immigration. “These organizations should be a little more distant from the parties and also a little more sensitive to the people who voted Trump in” by re-examining some of their stances.

4 / Educate the president. CEOs must step up to the challenge—and the opportunity—to help the Trump Administration understand and appreciate where they’re coming from.

“CEOs must make certain their point of view will be front and center and that [Trump] understands their company’s and industry’s point of view on those issues,” says Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna and current member of blue-chip boards, including American Express, Boeing and Johnson & Johnson. “As a community and as individuals, CEOs have an obligation to present practical solutions that reflect their views and their industry’s views. And most of those views are fairly balanced.”

This won’t necessarily be easy, Williams cautions, given Trump’s lack of background on many issues and clear insistence on asserting his own point of view. For example, “When he listens to builders and the real-estate development and hospitality industries, he’ll listen with a level of understanding someone else wouldn’t have,” he says. “But in other spaces—if he’s hearing from pharma, or aerospace or whatever—he won’t have that level of personal interest in it.”

Sunnova CEO John Berger, for example, wants to get President Trump’s ear about the importance of deregulating America’s electricity market. “We want to bring consumers choices,” says the head of America’s largest private solar-energy company, based in Houston. “It’s most likely the single biggest way of unleashing job growth and wealth creation in the economy today.”
If any cohort of CEOs could expect a brush-off from Trump, it’s those in Silicon Valley who contributed heavily to Hillary Clinton and openly lambasted Trump’s positions on trade.

But Kirk Krappe, CEO of Apptus, an e-commerce outfit based in San Mateo, California, insists that even his peers will be able to shoulder into a place at Trump’s table. “Just as a byproduct of the innovation and advancements coming out of Silicon Valley,” Krappe says, “we’ll be able to get the spotlight.”