“Government ought to be run more like a business.”
It sounds logical, even appealing, on the face of it. Who wouldn’t want government to operate effectively and efficiently, with a sharp eye and a sharper pencil monitoring costs — attributes businesses need if they’re to survive?
And who better to operate government like a business than those who have had success managing a successful business, executives with an appreciation for how the real world works and what the people living there really want and need — an appreciation businesses need if they expect to survive?
After all, businesses and governments are large entities with employees to be managed, operations to be maintained, projects to be completed and goals to be met. How different could the jobs really be?
So alluring is that notion that from time to time business executives figure they’d like to try their hand at running the country, and that they’d be pretty good at it.
The latest to hear the siren call of being the nation’s chief executive, and not just chief executive officer, is Howard Schultz, who didn’t start Starbucks but was the man with the vision to turn a local coffee chain into a global retailing phenomenon.
That success has fueled longstanding suspicions that Schultz, who has long seen himself as not just a business leader but a (to use an odious contemporary phrase) thought leader on social issues, is aiming for a new career in politics.
Schultz recently announced he’s not just giving up the title of executive chairman but leaving the board at the end of June, which would suggest that this time he really means it. Schultz relinquished active management of the company once, then reassumed control. That’s harder to do when you’re not in the boardroom making the argument you should be running things.
Now is not a bad time to be exiting. Building Starbucks into what it is is a huge accomplishment. Remaking public preferences for what had been a commodity product is another. Sustaining it might prove an even larger accomplishment, because over time everyone learns and mimics the Starbucks model.
Starbucks is in the fashion business as much as it is in the beverage business, and the public’s tastes change over time. Now it’s someone else’s headache to figure out to find new growth opportunities, stay relevant and keep the customers coming in and spending.
But Starbucks’ future is a topic for another day. What we need to cogitate on for the moment is not just why corporate executives take a run at politics, but why few run, fewer get elected and fewer still succeed.
If having a stint as the head of a visible company was all it took, we might be talking about U.S. Sen. Mike McGavick, the former Safeco insurance CEO who took on Maria Cantwell in 2006, or maybe even the nation’s first female president, Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard).
It isn’t and we aren’t. Just getting nominated and elected are tough. Political politics is different than corporate politics; the skills are different, and what’s counted as an achievement in one realm is a fault in another. Have any layoffs or a bungled merger on your resume? Elected politics is not likely to be kind to you.
Schultz has a far more impressive business resume than McGavick, Fiorina or even Ross Perot (who made Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 more likely).
According to a Starbucks press release, Schultz grew Starbucks from 11 stores to more than 28,000 in 77 countries, and delivered a 21,000 percent gain in its stock price since an initial public offering in 1992. But he had his own bout of store closings and layoffs, and he’s sure to hear about that from other candidates should he enter the race.
(His misadventures with the Seattle Sonics would be an issue if he were running for local office. But Schultz isn’t likely to run for city council or the Legislature. He’ll start at the top. After all, if the present occupant of the White House did it that way, how hard can it be?)
Then too, the “run government like a business” mantra might not be persuasive to those who have worked in private business, especially large corporations, and witnessed the propensity for ever-growing bureaucracies, poor internal communications, botched or non-existent planning and warring internal fiefdoms.
Getting elected is just the start of the trouble. The chief executive of a business, especially a forceful one with a clearly defined understanding of where he wants to take the company (i.e., Howard Schultz) can issue a directive with some expectation it’ll be carried out.
The chief executive of the country, however, has to deal with political factions, other branches of government and that amorphous bureaucratic blob that has seen would-be reformers come and go — not to mention appeasing the electorate.
Still, some pull it off. Michael Bloomberg built his namesake financial news service into a business-media powerhouse, then went on to three terms as mayor of New York.
Even with his wealth, business accomplishments and reputation, Schultz faces a much bigger challenge than getting millions of people the world over to pay several dollars for a cup of coffee. But he’ll survive. If it turns out the American voting public isn’t hiring and he’s still restless, there’s likely to be a green apron available for him somewhere.