The Inquirer recently published an opinion piece about CEOs engaging in public sector service. While I admire the great work and success of La Colombe’s Todd Carmichael, the author of the op-ed, I disagree with the premise of the article, that business leadership is not transferable to governance and that CEOs do not make good public servants.
It seems that stereotypes, political pandering, and labeling are everywhere these days. Being a CEO doesn’t diminish the desire to contribute beyond the bottom line. Instead, for many CEOs, it accentuates the desire to broaden the benefits that effective decision-making produces. I know because I am also a CEO. Almost without exception, every CEO I know understands the complexity of the economic and social environment in which we live.
Somehow, President Trump’s being a CEO of his own private empire has now doomed all CEOs to the label of “neo-kings,” autocratic, intellectually narrow people living in a closed-loop environment where we reign supreme. This describes a world very foreign from the one in which most CEOs live.
Our world revolves around broad stakeholder engagement. One filled with investors, community groups, coworkers, lenders, customers, rating agencies, analysts, and suppliers. We live in an extensively matrixed environment where autocracy is typically a calling card for bad decision-making, transitory results, and cultural dissonance — none of which lead to a good business outcome.
I have the benefit of working with many corporate leaders, including many CEOs. Rarely have I ever met someone who fits the description outlined in this piece: “CEOs, to some extent, decide on their own oversight and reign supreme.” Rather, most leaders I know follow a “listen, learn, and then decide” approach. They recognize the value inherent in consensus and understand the practical impact of their decisions. While many business leaders may not be temperamentally suited for public service, creating a CEO stereotype to make a tenuous political point hardly seems appropriate.
We have many examples of CEOs who have made exceptional public servants. Gov. Wolf was a CEO before taking office and in my discussions with him involving growing the Port of Philadelphia, I found him to be thoughtful, curious, and attentive. He listens, learns, and then decides. Another example was in the news last week: President George H.W. Bush, widely recognized as an effective and gracious politician, was a CEO early in his career.
While I’m sure there are autocratic bosses in the world, fortunately most of the business world is populated by leaders who effectively balance a wide range of stakeholders’ needs.
In Carmichael’s piece, he advocated that new members of Congress adopt a close-minded approach to men and women from business. He wrote: “All CEOs who are asked to join his cabinet ... should be asked to justify how their experience of running a company is anything other than a liability to the country.”
I recognize that this is an exaggeration intended to make a political point, but advocating that position is just as nonproductive as the ungracious behavior coming out of Washington. Labeling everybody — or frankly anybody — is extremely destructive to the imperfect ongoing evolution of our grand American experiment.
I have a different viewpoint. My hopeful and undoubtedly politically naive advice to the new members of Congress is that they bring a fresh perspective — without prejudice or predisposition – and become leaders who listen, learn, and then decide — just as many of the CEOs I know do every day.
As my father says, the heaviest burden in life to carry is a grudge. I hope our newly elected representatives can rise above demonizing and stereotyping, and move forward positively.
Jerry Sweeney is president and CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust.