Fast Talk: The Business of Politics

What skills do business leaders most rely on when they make a switch to public service? And what have these five businesspeople turned politicians learned?

Take Care

Kay Barnes

Mayor, Kansas City
Kansas City, Missouri

I had a consulting and public-speaking firm, working with all kinds of clients on organizational issues, time and stress management, and communication skills. Now I get to practice what I preach.

The most effective leaders are the ones who can move in and out of more than one management style. Usually I delegate and let my staff do their thing, but you have to know when to move in and be very involved. In October 2001, anthrax was found in small quantities at a Kansas City post office. Almost 200 employees received antibiotics, and luckily no one became ill. This was one of those times to be hands-on, even though this wasn't what New York or Washington dealt with. I spent the entire evening in the health department director's office with the emergency management staff, speaking with the Centers for Disease Control, and so forth. We held a press conference that night, and then I was back there the next morning and gave another.

Some people thought there was no need for my actions, but I felt it was appropriate to inform people. I wouldn't keep such information from my constituents. In most businesses, much of what you do isn't public and isn't required to be. But during times of uncertainty and fear, the public requires -- and deserves -- strong, sound leaders who tell them what's going on.

My experience as mayor is making me more assertive and more confident of my own beliefs and values because of how much I've had to test myself.

Kay Barnes ran a human-resources development firm for 23 years before being elected Kansas City's first woman mayor in 1999.

Take Charge

Mitt Romney

Governor, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts

The business world is very unforgiving if your numbers don't add up. In the public sector, there is a potential for a great deal more sloppiness. We can always go to the taxpayers and ask for more. But why? My experience in the investment and consulting worlds helped me develop an approach to turnaround situations that I've had to employ in my public life running the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and now the state of Massachusetts.

Number one: Stanch the bleeding. At the Olympics, I came into an organization that had a huge deficit, and the first thing I did was cut off some of the profligate spending. Then you do a strategic assessment of how bad things are. When I became governor, we immediately found that we were in financial distress. We carried out an audit of where we were and developed a pared-down budget that didn't force us to raise taxes or eliminate essential services.

You have to build the right team. I look for bright people with strong personalities who will argue with me. My background is in law and business. I like discussing both sides of an issue, and I'm comfortable with controversy.

Finally, you have to focus. In business, you realize that unless you improve the way you're doing things, you'll be left behind. Government tends to add programs but doesn't think in terms of eliminating inefficiency, much less constant improvement. I look at every program and think, How can we make this better? In the private sector, change is a part of everyday life.

Before being elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Mitt Romney was the CEO of Bain Capital and then of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Take Stock

Jon Corzine

U.S. Senator, New Jersey
Washington, DC

There are truly an incredible number of variables that come into making a good and thoughtful decision in politics. Often, when you try to impose a business strategy within a company, you're faced with a number of changing conditions. But in politics, it's overwhelming. You can't do it without understanding how everything relates to your basic core values.

Voting against the use-of-force resolution on the Iraq war was maybe the toughest decision I've ever made in my life. The assertions were horrific, and the facts were virtually nonexistent to support the arguments. It forces you to bring real discipline to your decision-making process. I've sat in on presentations at Goldman where I thought I was getting a tilted, slanted selling proposition, as opposed to a factual analysis that will lead you to arrive at a conclusion. The government's case against Saddam Hussein felt like that to me. I felt like it was being promoted, instead of me being convinced.

There's no reason to accumulate political capital if you're not going to use it, but the pace at which you use it is something that people have to keep in mind. If I were back in the private sector, I'd wield it maybe a little less aggressively than I once did. You have only so much political capital in this world, and you have to be careful how you use it if you want to get things done and stay in positions of authority.

The former cochair and co-CEO of Goldman Sachs, Jon Corzine was elected to his first term as senator in November 2000 and was one of 23 senators to vote against the preemptive attack on Iraq in 2003.

Take Risks

Craig Benson

Governor, New Hampshire
Concord, New Hampshire

When I was running for governor, one of my competitors said, "In business you can order people what to do." But that's not how you get a garage operation with two employees to grow to 7,000 people, like mine did. You have to get people to feel part of it, engaging them, motivating them, and making them feel that without them the success of the company would be nonexistent. Selling people on where you're trying to go means buying into their ideas, too, because they have to feel that they're part of that.

To achieve, you have to build a consensus. Developing good communication skills is essential. As governor, I've really learned the value of trying to make sure I'm concise in my message and that people can understand it. While we all have different goals, the objective is the same.

Like being healthy. One of the biggest risks I've taken as governor has been importing prescription drugs from Canada. It's illegal to import drugs not approved by the Federal Health and Human Services department, and the state could get sued if somebody got the wrong drug. But I needed to get our citizens affordable medication. When I was showing off the Web site where New Hampshire residents could order drugs, a lady had me type in her drug. It turned out that 30 pills cost $667 in Canada. I hit the floor. She said, "Those same pills are $1,800 here." Risk taking and innovation aren't always associated with government, but they're key to any vibrant organization.

Craig Benson still uses the three-legged desk he worked on when he cofounded Cabletron Systems in a friend's garage in 1983. He has been governor since 2003.

Take Time

John Hickenlooper

Mayor, Denver
Denver, Colorado

As the owner of several restaurants, and now as mayor, I've come to realize that government, to a certain extent, is a lot of customer relations. You're providing services to taxpayers. And I think there's a tendency for traditional public servants to try to decide what's best for people and arbitrarily impose programs or statutes on citizens, sometimes based on very little input.

For example, in 2003 we came in facing a $70 million deficit, roughly 10% of our entire budget. Instead of just laying off enough people to make up that deficit, I went to each of the city agencies and asked them what they wanted to do. They wanted to tighten their belts. City employees agreed to pay 2% of their salaries to the pension, they agreed to pay a larger percentage of their health care, and they took five unpaid leave days. All in all, they took a 4% pay cut. Without that, there would have been more than 1,000 layoffs.

I'm not sure I would ever recommend that the business world move as slowly as government, but there are benefits to putting more time into thinking through process. In the business world, I always had a great sense of urgency. I still have that, but the political process demands that I be more cautious in terms of how quickly we announce things. You want to make sure you have as much buy-in from the people who will be affected and the people who will be implementing that plan. That's also true in business, but it happens on a much faster schedule.

John Hickenlooper opened his first of seven Wynkoop Brewing Company restaurants in Denver in 1988. He won the mayoralty with 65% of the vote in 2003.

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