Lots of clues are to be found in his best-selling book, The Art of the Deal. But that focuses largely on Trump’s 11 tenets for successful negotiation. What about the rest of running a company?
Trump’s own behavior, as well as evaluations by other CEOs and outside experts, bespeak a business leader who is determined, confident, decisive, charismatic and sometimes even manic—and capable of surprises of the same type that have helped him defy political pigeonholes as he has become the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. While not everyone would agree, some feel that Trump exhibits such strengths.
Exhibit No. 1 of his style was Trump’s performance on Tuesday night in his press conference after primary votes in four states, three of which he won. He conducted a dog-and-pony show on stage at his golf course in Jupiter, Fla., complete with displays of “Trump wine,” “Trump water” and even steaks labeled “Trump” that he serves at the resort. Apparently he did that in response to last week’s criticism of his business record by 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“I mean, we sell water,” Trump explained. “And we have water, and it’s very successful, you know, it’s a private little water company, and I supply the water for all my places, and it’s good.”
Here are seven reflections on Trump as a CEO.
1. He’s an opportunist who sometimes can come across as authentic. American voters and politicos alike are finding out that The Donald is a guy who uses a political press conference to hawk his wares. As a CEO, opportunity has always been a big asset for him, just as it mostly has been for Trump’s presidential bid. “It’s really clear that a lot of people are looking for transparency and authenticity in messaging, and it’s very clear that he’s highly unscripted,” said John Foraker, president of the Annie’s Homegrown unit of General Mills, who noted that he doesn’t support Trump politically. “And that’s a very refreshing alternative compared with most CEOs, who basically are always reading off a cue card. People are attracted to that even if they don’t like the message.”
2. But he’s not transparent. As owner of a vast business empire but one that is privately held, Trump holds his cards much closer to his vest than a typical CEO—especially of a publicly held company—can do. “As a transparent CEO, you must act with good behavior because everyone else can see what you do, and the decisions you’re making,” said Dennis Zeleny, a consultant on leadership and human-resources management who has headed HR for major companies including Sunoco and Caremark CVS. “Donald Trump doesn’t have the transparent, server-CEO mentality that you get from running a public company, and he can just decide and not explain his actions. He can make decisions that are totally self-serving, such as his use of bankruptcy—where all the money that he owes other people he’s getting out of paying. He’s just used to taking care of himself.”
3. He looks at business as a series of deals. By focusing throughout his career on “the art of the deal,” Trump simply may be reflecting the fact that he built his business as a series of buildings and other distinct transactions that are unified only by his interest in them. In that sense, it doesn’t matter what came before because, for Trump, everything is about the “deal” in front of him. This may be one reason that he insists with some veracity that he gets along “with everybody”: because he does, depending on what’s happening at the moment. That’s why some sworn business enemies of the past, such as Carl Icahn, Trump now is eyeing as potential members of his cabinet.
4. He runs his business like a family patriarch. Trump takes full advantage of the fact that he owns and runs his company without the constraints of other shareholders. That’s why he has his kids running many of his enterprises, for instance. “He doesn’t have to be great at collaborating or working as a team, at convincing a board or yielding to a board whether he wants to go left or right,” Zeleny observed. “No one can fire him or even really question his decisions.” Added Dick Morris, a conservative political advisor and pundit whose father was Trump’s real estate lawyer for decades: “It’s ‘my team,’ and everyone else is against ‘my team.’” This character trait is completely counterintuitive to the job of POTUS.
5. He focuses on getting things done. When Trump says things on the campaign trail like, “We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it,” his attitude reflects an approach to running his companies that focuses on the end objective, even if he must run roughshod—such as in filing bankruptcies—to achieve it. “Donald Trump will get it done,” Morris noted recently. “He’s someone who looks at situations and says, ‘How can I solve this problem?’ And for getting from here to there, he’s fairly ruthless.” He’s going to have to learn to collaborate and place nice as part of a team to be the president of the U.S.
6. He’s confident his employees like him. Trump has holdings, operations and companies in several states, and he cites this frequently as a reason that he will get a lot of votes in those states, whether that means Virginia, Illinois or Florida. He assumes his many employees, their families and friends will vote for him. That means he thinks they like him enough to do so, because it’s not as if their jobs depend on his winning the presidency.
7. He’s capable of surprise. For all his bombast and bluster, his politically incorrect statements, and his seeming hostility toward certain women, such as Megyn Kelly and Rosie O’Donnell, Trump wouldn’t have succeeded in business by acting out that attitude on a daily basis. In fact, one example from his tenure in business that likely would surprise many political pundits is that he hired a woman as the top construction engineer on what is still his signature project: Trump Tower. And that was way back in the Eighties, when a female builder was a rare commodity indeed.