The Keys to Success for CEO Politicians

To hear Jon Corzine tell it, Meg Whitman is either deceiving us or deceiving herself. Like Whitman, the former eBay CEO who's vying for California's Republican gubernatorial nomination, Corzine is one of the few people in America who has tried to make the leap from running a business (in his case, Goldman Sachs) to running a government (the state of New Jersey). He can only scoff when he hears Whitman arguing that deficit-ridden California desperately needs her corporate skills. Corzine also thought "the managerial skill set would be helpful," he tells NEWSWEEK. But after four grueling years as a Democratic governor—ending in a humiliating defeat by an uninspiring Republican opponent—Corzine no longer believes that being a CEO prepares anyone for the day-to-day grind of governing. "The idea that you're accountable to a bottom line and to a payroll in managing a business—it gives voters the confidence that you have the right skills [to govern]. But it's 20,000 people versus 9 million. I don't think candidates get the scale and scope of what governing is. You don't have the flexibility you imagined. There's no exact translation."

Corzine has a point. Very little that happens inside a corporate suite is like governing a state or a country. CEOs, like generals, can issue orders and expect them to be carried out. Jobs and budgets can be pared by fiat, with little public controversy. It's not nearly as simple for governors or senators—even presidents. Their authority is never absolute. They are constrained by the separation of powers and forced to ride the tiger of public opinion; they must persuade, cajole, and arm-twist to get their way. As Harry Truman once said about his presidential successor, Dwight Eisenhower: "He'll sit there all day saying do this, do that, and nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won't be a bit like the Army." Beyond that, there's rarely been a time in American industry when CEOs have been so discredited. The last "CEO presidency"—George W. Bush's—ended up in a ditch. The CEOs of Wall Street have provoked outrage by awarding themselves record bonuses during the worst recession in decades—a recession they mainly caused.

Even so, a number of former corporate chieftains are insisting that this is their moment to become political leaders. Jobs are on every voter's mind, and execs have experience at creating them. With a record $1.6 trillion federal deficit, and states and localities seriously underwater, expertise in budgets has become a national imperative. And let's face it: if corporate executives are mistrusted, the politicians in Democratic-controlled Washington are even more so. "I'd rather be a Republican CEO than a Democratic incumbent in this environment," says Doug Schoen, a political consultant who has advised both Corzine and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, perhaps the most successful ex-CEO politician in the country. Most of the new candidates are conservatives: Whitman thinks she's ready to take over California, the world's eighth-largest economy; ex–Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, who advised John McCain in 2008, wants to replace Barbara Boxer in the Senate; Linda McMahon of World Wrestling Entertainment is competing for the Senate seat that Democrat Chris Dodd is retiring from; and Mitt Romney is preparing for another GOP presidential run.

So maybe it's time for a reality check. In truth, both arguments about the CEO as politician—pro and con—have their merits. But neither view, in the end, is entirely accurate. As the U.S. struggles to restart its economic engines and restrain government spending, it would be wrong to let populist passions disqualify an entire class of business leaders from public service. At the same time it would be irresponsible to entrust the reins of government to people simply because they happen to have handled a payroll. Ultimately, the real issue is not whether these candidates were once CEOs. It is what sort of personal qualities made them into the CEOs they were—and what that tells us about the public servants they might become.

Biography, in that sense, is political destiny. Judging by recent history, the most effective CEO pols tend to be politically savvy (unlike Corzine), obsessively detail-oriented (unlike Bush), and nonideological (unlike either of them). It also helps to be a visionary in both the corporate and political world; the "vision thing" counts, as W.'s father, George H.W. Bush, grudgingly acknowledged, though that alone doesn't suffice. Donald Rumsfeld, a sometime politician, was known as a visionary turnaround specialist when he ran Searle and General Instrument in the '80s and '90s, respectively. But Rumsfeld wasn't considered a great detail man, even in the corporate sphere, and when he came back to Washington as Defense secretary, he made the mistake of hiring a No. 2 at the Pentagon who was also a broad-brush thinker, Paul Wolfowitz. Too often no one was minding the store. The result was a series of disastrous mistakes and bloody dysfunction in Iraq.

Any CEO seeking to transition into politics would be wise to follow Bloomberg's example. The hard-charging, imperious New York mayor was hardly considered a saint when he arrived at City Hall in 2002—questions had been raised, for example, about his treatment of women—and his steamroller style nearly cost him last November's election. But the vision and skills that helped Bloomberg grow a small financial-data company into a multibillion-dollar information empire have served him well as mayor. In business, Bloomberg created a more entrepreneurial environment by rejecting corporate protocol such as titles and offices; as mayor, he has insisted on accountability wherever possible, including the strict A-through-F ratings of school performance that he instituted after seizing control of the public-education system in 2002. At Bloomberg LP, service was key; clients could dial a 24-hour help line or e-mail Bloomberg directly, and products were constantly refined. The Bloomberg administration, meanwhile, treats New Yorkers like "customers"; they're encouraged to phone in complaints to 311, a nonemergency hotline, and log on to the Web for real-time feedback on city services, such as how long it takes to fix a broken parking meter (13 days). Although Bloomberg may be overbearing at times, he's undeniably effective.

By contrast, anyone who bothered to sift through the business records of Corzine and George W. Bush might have guessed that they wouldn't be particularly good at governing. Which isn't to say they were flawed in the same way; in fact, much the opposite. Corzine was a whip-smart bond trader who rose through the ranks at Goldman Sachs on the strength of his market knowledge and dealmaking ability. Both were skills that might have helped him succeed in the U.S. Senate, where he served from 2001 to 2005. But as CEO of Goldman, Corzine lacked the political touch necessary to unite his fellow board members behind him, and he was ousted by co-chairman (and future Treasury secretary) Henry Paulson as a result.

Corzine failed as governor, Garden State political columnist Alan Steinberg has said, because he went on to display "the same type of unilateral decision making ... in terms of his relationship with the legislature." Ultimately, his disdain for politicking and persuasion made his conscientious, if often unpalatable, proposals (a sales-tax hike; pricier, privatized toll roads) even harder to swallow and cost him the second term necessary to fulfill his vision of a more affordable New Jersey for struggling families. An unreconstructed liberal, Corzine could never crack down on spending, and when Wall Street collapsed in 2008, he lost the public's trust. He was a brainy, decent guy. But he never became a politician.

Bush, on the other hand, had always been the consummate salesman—long known, as David Brooks put it in a 1999 Weekly Standard profile, as a "popularity superstar" whose main asset as a manager was his ability to "improve everyone's mood and to remind them how much fun it is to be around him." But Bush's bonhomie masked a deep managerial flaw that would later tarnish his presidency: a lack of interest in the nuts and bolts of the operations he was running. His refusal to sweat the details and his heavy reliance on connections (as opposed to creativity, or merit, or results) foreshadowed a spendthrift presidency marred by cronyism and incompetence, from Iraq to Katrina to Harriet Myers. Bush's ideology—mainly his embrace of the supply-side benefits of tax cuts—trumped the pragmatic business sense that was too little in evidence during his corporate career.

And what of the newest crop of CEO candidates?

Like Bloomberg, Mitt Romney has spent much of his adult life focused on results rather than ideology—first in the private sector and then as governor of Massachusetts. A slick presence with a knack for intraoffice politics, Romney quickly advanced at the legendary Bain & Co. consulting firm on the strength of his agile intellect and hyperrational, consensus-seeking style. In 1983, Romney was tapped to create and run an investment firm called Bain Capital; under his leadership, the shaky startup (seven staffers, $37 million in assets) would grow into a $4 billion, 115-person powerhouse. Any partner could nix a deal, so analysis, debate, and persuasion were crucial. Even critics of Bain's bottom-line MO say that Romney, who scoured proposals in search of weak spots, was responsible for the firm's success.

Romney's dispassionate approach served him well in Massachusetts, where he worked with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature to pass a universal health-care plan and successfully pushed a combination of spending cuts, increased fees, and tax reforms that transformed a $1.3 billion deficit into a $700 million surplus. If he can resist the political temptation—on ample display, unfortunately, during his 2008 campaign—to forsake pragmatism in favor of pandering to the far right, his business acumen could still make him a potent president one day.

Of course, it's much easier to look back and see a politician's CEO roots reflected in his or her public service than to predict how a current corner-office candidate would fare in government. For Meg Whitman, who likes to claim that she's "uniquely qualified to be the chief executive officer of California in these economic times," the signals are mixed. When she joined eBay in early 1998, it was a nerdy, niche service for hobbyists, with 300,000 users and $4 million in revenue; when she left in 2008, it was bringing in $8 billion a year and attracting 246 million regular customers. Analysts universally cite Whitman's management style as a main driver of eBay's explosive growth; as Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler has put it, she exemplified a "new" kind of "corporate leader" who "weaves a texture out of the threads flowing from his or her company's community" instead of "imposing his or her blueprint on everyone." (Like the rest of eBay's staff, Whitman sat in an eight- by eight-foot cubicle and wore a navy blue polo with khakis.) Whitman's willingness to absorb new information and adjust on the fly gave rise to the creative strategic decisions—going global, acquiring PayPal, combating fraud, competing with Amazon and Yahoo—that fueled eBay's explosive growth.

Whitman doesn't seem to suffer from the same failings as earlier CEO politicians. Unlike Bush, she was eager to delve into details at eBay, transforming the company from a typically slackerish Silicon Valley startup into the sort of place where every facet of the customer experience was quantified. Her granular, results-oriented approach helped the site meet its rising financial expectations every quarter for her first eight years at the helm. According to former eBay colleagues, Whitman isn't aloof like Corzine, either. In fact, she's so frequently described as "nice" or "nurturing" that a recent reference by Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster to an "Evil Meg" who "could be a monster when she got angry or frustrated" read more like a selling point than a defect. (So she's tough after all!) But the most important skill Whitman demonstrated during her time at eBay was the ability, like her Bain & Co. mentor Romney, to focus on the task at hand. As the dotcom sector took off, she wisely refused to grasp at short-term growth or spend money on splashy advertising, choosing instead to build loyalty among eBay's existing customer base. Executives called the strategy "playing good golf." When Whitman says that as governor she'd rather "get a few things done at 100 percent" than "solve every problem," she's speaking from experience.

But Whitman's success is hardly assured. Unlike Romney, who claims to have rescued the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics from huge cost overruns, Whitman has never attempted a turnaround, which is exactly what California needs to stay afloat. In fact, Whitman's résumé suggests that she has a tendency to falter when the economy tanks. Despite her early accomplishments at eBay, annual growth in the value of the site's merchandise slid from as much as 200 percent to less than 30 percent after the dotcom bubble popped, and Whitman struggled to adjust, acquiring Skype for $2.6 billion, then writing off $1.4 billion of its value two years later. All told, eBay shares fell 43 percent between their peak in December 2004 and Whitman's departure in March 2008—creating concerns, according to the Los Angeles Times, "that when the tech sector's go-go years ended, they took her magic with them."

Carly Fiorina's outspokenness and tenacity as an executive were both her strength and failing. She became the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company, but ended up leaving Hewlett-Packard under a cloud. The board fired Fiorina in 2005 after she seemed to overreach by purchasing Compaq, which caused the stock to drop precipitously. As an adviser to McCain, Fiorina also landed in the doghouse after she declared at the height of the financial crisis that neither the candidate nor his veep choice, Sarah Palin, could run a major corporation. (Hastily seeking to backtrack, Fiorina added that "running a corporation is a different set of things," an ironic comment in view of the case she's making now about her readiness for the Senate.)

Still, the very flamboyance and grit that made Fiorina a nationally known CEO could turn her into an outstanding senator. Among those who endorse her is McCain's former close adviser, Charlie Black. "Her CEO skills—discipline, hard work, and people skills—certainly apply in politics," Black says. "Added to that, not every CEO really cares deeply about policy, but Carly does. She is an unusual combination of being smart, tough, and zealous. She's never going to let up on her goals. I think she's a great candidate." Fiorina's penchant for ideological baiting—witness her now-famous "demon sheep" ad attacking GOP primary rival Tom Campbell—is a worrisome sign. But it could make her very popular in her party and ultimately a leader.

What will matter most in the end is not what Fiorina did while she was CEO, but the skills and personality that got her there. But first she—and the rest of the new class of CEO contenders—have elections to win.