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CEO in chief at 100 days
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump won the White House by arguing that what America needed was a president who had proved himself as a steely and successful corporate leader with no political baggage — someone, say, like himself.
If Abraham Lincoln relied on a team of rivals, Trump would command a team of “killer” CEOs. He cast himself as a gifted manager who could rewrite flawed trade deals, bridge gaps between Democrats and Republicans, work financial magic on the tax code and restore prosperity to devastated factory towns.
Yet 100 days into Trump’s presidency, the businessman-as-president has struggled to apply his experience as a real estate and entertainment mogul to the Herculean task of governing the world’s most powerful nation.
Asked to assess his tenure so far, management experts point to a stream of missteps that run counter to the clarity, discipline and consistency of message typical of the best executives. Blustery speeches have given way to fuzzy policies that have weakened the president’s negotiating hand on such complex challenges as revamping taxes and health insurance.
Trump’s actions on immigration have been blocked or tangled up in court battles. He has yet to fill countless senior government jobs. Having failed to pass any major legislation, Trump has instead resorted to signing a torrent of executive orders — an impulse more typical of a manager directing subordinates than a president building partnerships.
The administration has declared the 100-day mark an arbitrary deadline. But leading CEOs often work under even tighter schedules: Investors gauge their performance each quarter — every 90 days. John Challenger, CEO of the executive recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, notes that new chief executives typically face pressure to achieve victories in their first 90 days. Such milestones tend to draw potential critics to their side and establish authority, he said.
“They don’t have to be big wins — they can be early wins as you look for ways to show you’ve had an impact,” Challenger said. “This administration has had a hard time demonstrating, showing that.”
White House aides point out that Trump will have signed 32 executive orders by Friday, the most of any president in his first 100 days since World War II. But the actions produced by those orders fall well short of the bold promises he made as a candidate. Several of the executive orders are merely requests for studies — on financial regulations, environmental rules and trade policies. They suggest that the administration is still figuring out how government works and how to tame a rambunctious and independent-minded Congress, even one led, like the White House, by Republicans.
Trump still likes to bask in the glow of corporate America. Almost weekly, he has met with major chief executives at the White House for input on policy and photo-ops. Yet few around him know their way around government.
For secretary of state, Trump chose Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil. For Commerce secretary, his pick was Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor. For Treasury, it was Steve Mnuchin, a Wall Street executive turned movie producer. And as his top economic adviser, Trump tapped Gary Cohn, formerly Goldman Sachs’ No. 2 executive.
Like Trump, none of them had any political experience.
“It’s the blind leading the blind,” said Henry Mintzberg, a management expert at McGill University. “You need to get people who can think for themselves but also have a deep understanding of the issues. Drop this silly idea that government can be run like a business.”
In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Trump appeared to concede that a president cannot manage successfully with solely a bottom-line corporate mentality.
“Here, everything, pretty much everything you do in government, involves heart, whereas in business, most things don’t involve heart,” he said. “In fact, in business you’re actually better off without it.”
Some in his Cabinet have portrayed their shift from the private sector as a natural move that bestows its own advantages.
“A lot of the things I learned in business carried over to this job,” Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said Wednesday. “A lot of it is about consensus building and teamwork.”
Trump, of course, needs support from Congress’ independently elected lawmakers to pass laws and from foreign leaders to forge global alliances — responsibilities that can be more delicate than negotiating with business partners who stand to profit from cutting a deal.
Since becoming president, Trump has retreated from some of his audacious campaign promises. He now hails the NATO alliance as important, having previously labeled it obsolete. He backed away from labeling China as a currency manipulator and now casts Beijing as a likely ally in defusing a nuclear North Korea.
These changes display a certain openness to change in response to circumstances, said Kathleen O’Connor, a professor at Cornell University’s business school with an expertise in negotiating strategies.
Yet Trump has adopted so many contradictory stances as to make it hard to engender trust with lawmakers. He pushed an aggressive timeline for replacing President Barack Obama’s health care law, scrapped the plan once it failed to receive enough support from House Republicans and then tried to revive it this week while also unveiling his principles on a tax overhaul, trying to stop a government shutdown and issuing duties on Canadian lumber.
“He seems to lack some clarity with what he wants,” O’Connor said. “It’s hard to take that reputation to the bargaining table because you don’t know if you’re going to get the same guy two days in a row.”
Richard Box, a retired professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in 1999 wrote a major academic article about running government as a business. He suggests that the administration must make longer-term investments in policies and ideas to cultivate support with voters and lawmakers, rather than assume it can cut deals as one might for a TV show or condo tower.
Business leaders “sometimes come to (government) positions thinking it’s just a matter of the sort of command-and-control they are accustomed to in their companies,” Box said. “They soon find that government is much more complicated than this and it takes a different skill set to make things happen.”
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