‘Like a Business’ — Really?

September 27, 2011

For release Sept. 28 and thereafter (581 words)

Those of us in the private sector wonder what certain politicians mean when they say they are running things like a business. So I read with interest a recent story in my hometown paper detailing a local politician’s business rationale for disbanding the board of directors in one of our so-called “public-private partnerships.”

The political promise was that the board, like a business, could raise private-sector money in partial support of a public-safety academy in our region. We were asked to understand that this promise could not be kept because the economy was so bad . . . it now must be funded entirely by tax dollars . . . there was no other choice . . . we’re trying our best.

Well, I’m sure many can accept that tough times make it hard to raise money. We tend to sympathize with anyone struggling against large, seemingly uncontrollable economic forces. But let me provide another perspective, one gained in real-world business experience.

Men and women who run organizations “like a business” must make decisions occasionally that require them to set emotions aside. In this case, the taxpayers were the owners of the public-safety academy. As such, they should have resisted the temptation to sympathize; they should have thought more like business people or shareholders with their life savings at stake.

Anyone who has been a chief economic officer (CEO) recognizes this scenario: A department head comes into your office to answer questions about why agreed goals have not been met (a conversation, by the way, that occurs frequently in business). The CEO can be sympathetic to a point, but in the interest of his investors and other employees he cannot accept a sweeping, general explanation.

Personally, I would drill deep and ask for documentation on the activity behind the strategic plan, i.e., which companies and individuals were called upon, how many were called upon and what were they asked to donate and what were the respective results.

From that I would try to evaluate whether the executive had a good plan at the start. If the executive had followed up by making certain that all sales appointments, meetings and phone calls were duly made, my job would be to support that person. I would acknowledge that unforeseeable events had made the goal unachievable. Together we could begin the work of adjusting to a set of newly identified, more global problems affecting our organization.

If, however, the executive had veered off plan or into a bad plan, or had not put in the effort and could only say “the economy was too tough,” my obligation would be to fire that person.

It is time to hold politicians to a similar standard. Their excuses would be risible in the private sector — along the line of “my dog ate the homework” or “the devil made me do it.”

And by accepting facile explanations, we taxpayers — the shareholders — abide malfeasance. Moreover, we become marks for the classic pigeon drop confidence game, foolishly trusting that politicians are caring for our money as if it were their own, e.g., “like a business.”

So if you are an incumbent seeking reelection, show me your record. Next, I want to see both your long-range and short-range plans for our community’s quality of life and financial stability. Finally, I want to know how — exactly — you intend to execute those plans, what barriers you expect to overcome.

For in this economy we cannot afford manipulated emotion, self-serving excuse or business platitude.

Pete Eshelman, CEO of Joseph Decuis of Roanoke, began his business career in the front office of the New York Yankees under the late George Steinbrenner. A version of this essay appeared in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Contact the author at journal@inpolicy.org.


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