Whitman and Fiorina: Why Tech CEOs Don't Have a Chance in Politics
Business leaders appear to have much stronger skill sets for running governments than a lot of the politicians who've been making a royal mess of things, but what they usually don't have are the skill sets for getting elected. Campaigns are essentially glorified high-school popularity contests, and successful politicians are more likely to be former cheerleaders than former "A" students.
04/12/10 5:00 AM PT
I seem to be getting an increasing number of calls asking me whether Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina have a chance as a governor or a U.S. senator respectively. Both are uniquely capable, and both have histories that suggest good management skills that would be critical in California -- a state that desperately needs them.
Both are Republicans during a time when it seems folks are really upset with Democrats, and both are new to politics during a time when voters are really upset with incumbents. Both are also rich, which helps a lot, but the question is, does either really have a chance?
That's what I'll consider this week, and I'll close with my product of the week: my new car, the Audi S5. (To those of you who helped with this decision, thanks!)
Business People in Politics
Boy there sure haven't been a lot of them. Remember Ross Perot's run for president? How about Steve Forbes? If you look at the U.S.' fiscal performance, which has turned us into a nation of debt and China into our landlord, you would think someone with a successful business background would trump people who actually won, who often seem to either have no business skills, or in the case of one two-termer, slept through much of his education.
Bloomberg in New York is one of the few exceptions, and his performance in that city, which has actually been rather impressive, suggests that with the proper support, business skills could make the country vastly more successful -- and us less likely to be indentured servants to China.
Our country is run by professional politicians. This recent video of one of them, who is evidently concerned that Guam will capsize, likely explains exactly why government and the country are as messed up as they are.
So why can't successful business people who seem to have skills that are at least better than many who currently hold the job, get elected?
If you look at politicians, they were often the popular people in school -- not the smartest, not the most honest, not even the richest. But generally, they were at the top of the social network. What these folks are good at is building followers, not managing companies or employees. This is a skill set closer to what Steve Jobs, and almost no one else, does with regard to how you would run a product portfolio. However even Steve (ran into an interesting slant on Steve Jobs while writing this) -- who was passed over for Secretary of Education during Bill Clinton's term -- wouldn't survive as a politician.
To be popular, you learn to tell people what they want to hear. You learn to focus your passions on projects that don't reduce your chances of election/reelection, and you learn the art of compromise. This last is trading off something you want for something you want more. Successful CEOs are more like monarchs than governors, senators or presidents. They are used to setting a direction and having people step up to execute their wishes. In a democracy -- and often in other types of government -- decisions are reached through consensus, often across groups of people who don't like each other very much.
CEO vs. Politician
Successful CEOs know they have to be decisive to keep their investors and boards happy. While they may ask for opinions, they are successful because they can make hard decisions and carry the company forward. Primary tools are their position and their ability to get people to follow their orders. Successful CEOs, like HP's Mark Hurd, often avoid publicity as more of a danger than a benefit. Being charismatic is a plus but not a requirement, and they often suck as public speakers.
Successful politicians know they have to keep their supporters behind them and that the trick is to get others to make the hard decisions so the fallout never lands on the politician's desk. They are successful because they get reelected repeatedly, not because they actually did anything. In fact, accomplishments often polarize the voters and put the politician at risk. Primary tools are their ability to manipulate others, avoid adverse controversy, and successfully negotiate deals. Successful politicians seek out publicity but know they are always potentially on stage (clearly, many forget this last part). The camera loves them, and they trend toward charismatic.
As a result, a CMO or head of sales would likely do better in politics than a CEO would. This is because both have skills focused on manipulating rather than managing others.
Most CEOs are men and Meg clearly is not, and this actually works to her favor in California. However, she is pretty typical aside from this point. The camera doesn't really like her much, and she tends to come off as dull and lacking charisma. Her plans sound like she thinks she is running for a CEO job rather than a political one, and her campaign shows a lack of experience.
For instance, she is killing her primary opponent Poizner, a career politician, in the polls, and yet she is running really questionable negative campaigns against him. Negative campaigns tend to reflect badly on both parties and tend to be a tool used by someone who is behind, not ahead. Poizner will use his funding to strike back against Whitman, effectively supplementing her real challenger, who is likely Jerry Brown -- a career politician (nicknamed "Moonbeam") who actually was once governor of the state. Brown has all the traits of a career politician: He is charismatic and well liked, and he has a history of both raising money and getting votes.
If it weren't for his age, which will be a problem, he should beat Whitman easily.
Fiorina has some advantages and disadvantages Whitman does not. On the disadvantage side, she is running against an incumbent -- and even in an anti-incumbent environment, we don't normally vote them out. She is also running against another successful woman, so her sex isn't an advantage.
On the other hand, I've seen Carly speak and she has the potential for Steve Jobs-level charisma. She can hold and entertain an audience with the best of them and would be especially formidable in a debate. She also has a CMO's skill set and understands how to manipulate people -- likely better than Barbara Boxer (the Democratic Senator she is challenging). The historic problem for Fiorina is that she isn't a good negotiator -- nor is she good at building consensus, which is less critical for the job of Senator than the job of Governor, but still critical to the process of getting elected.
Finally, and this was showcased during her time at HP, she appears unwilling to acknowledge and make up for her shortcomings. This last, which has historically been her Achilles' heel, goes to the core of why she failed at HP.
Of the two, Carly is actually has skills closer to what would be needed to win -- but she has historically failed, without a lot of help, to do what is necessary to get the job done.
I would place Fiorina's odds of winning as better than Whitman's but still give the edge to the experienced politician Boxer.
Business people rarely win in politics without first learning to be politicians. I think executives spending their own money are thinking they are buying a job and that they don't have to learn a new skill set.
That thinking is why few succeed, and why it is unlikely either one of these ex-CEO challengers will break that trend.
Product of the Week: Audi S5 Quattro Cabriolet
Our Audi TT was coming off lease in January, and we started the process of looking for a new car two weeks ago. Because there wasn't anything I really wanted (the Fisker Karma folks would never call me back), I used Twitter to ask folks who knew me what car I should buy.
While I have to admit driving the new Corvette was lesson in lust, the reality is I have to use this car to go places -- not just pound the road on weekends. The Miata was too small (and really far from practical), Infinity too windy with the top down and too similar to my FX35, the Jaguar too, ah, Jaguar, and I've never been a huge fan of BMWs (seats are too hard and don't hug enough for me).
The Audi S5 has a supercharged 6 (similar to what I have in my pumped FX), which gives me a balance of performance and mileage; an Nvidia-powered navigation system (you have to see this) with free integrated traffic; four-wheel drive and a better transmission than the one I loved in the TT; and back seats that fold flat so the dogs can sleep in the trunk (and not mess up the leather).
I spent more than I intended, but with the help of my friends on Twitter (thanks again), I got the perfect car. Maybe Twitter should have been my product of the week?
In any case, this is why the wonderful Audi S5 Quattro Cabriolet is my product of the week -- and it even has a heated headrest!
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.