Thursday, October 23, 2008

What is experience good for?

Vincenzo Camuccini, "The Ides of March", 1800 (detail)

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Let me say before I go any farther, that I don't think either candidate for the president of the United States this year is very well qualified for the job or has much relevant experience for it.

In my opinion the US Senate gives practically no training relevant to commanding and controlling an immense organization. In the US system the legislative and executive branches are separated and demand different skill sets. Clinton and Reagan were governors and had spent a long time learning those skills. "Bush was a governor too", you say, yes he was, however, in my opinion, Bush is totally insane, which is an insuperable handicap for a manager.

What follows is only a short discussion about what experience might be good for. This seems necessary, as I have found quite a few supporters of Barack Obama that maintain that experience is irrelevant or ever a handicap. "Look how experienced Dick Cheney is!" they say. Look indeed. Cheney is extremely successful... if getting exactly what you want most of the time is any definition of success. Cheney is a perfect example of a subordinate that follows his own agenda in detriment of what is supposed to be the organization's "mission statement".

Before going any farther, I think I should confess that I have spent my whole life avoiding being a manager. All the men in my family were managers and I didn't want to live like they did. This aversion goes so far as to not even knowing how to play golf. I am a lone wolf, not a team player.

However, I respect the manager animal very much and know him very well. A great uncle of mine was the chairman of the board of Monsanto in the 1920s and 30s, my father's eldest brother was chief operating officer of Mother Bell, a first cousin of mine was a project manager at Boeing and my dad was the president of a large chain of sporting good stores before becoming the manufacturing vice president of a large floor covering company in charge of running some twenty factories, fifteen of which he built, manned and put into action himself.

My father was a good talker and loved to talk about his work and most of what I know about management I learned from him and reading anything by Peter Drucker I could get my hands on.

The first thing that was impressed on me as a manager's problem was that people don't do as they are told. My father had spent about twelve years in the Army before and during the war and I remember him saying, when I was a small boy, that as a former general, president Eisenhower's problem was that he was used to working with people who actually obeyed orders unquestioningly; whereas in civilian life and especially in politics everyone has their own agendas and that understanding their motives and ambitions was essential to managing and manipulating them. Knowing when to delegate, to whom, how much and how long is an essential manager's art that takes time to pick up when you move as the boss in an environment where everyone apparently agrees with you and seems eager to please you.

This takes us to the probable winner of the election, Barack Obama.

He has in large measure certain extremely important qualities in a manager: purposefulness, charisma, an ability to convince others that he knows what to do, the ability to listen and to communicate.

However he has never managed a large organization before.

"Hold on" you say, "what about the campaign?" "Hasn't he created and is running an incredible machine for winning the election?"

I would maintain that there is a fundamental difference between running a campaign for president of the United States and running the affairs of the United States themselves.

The campaign organization springs up with a single purpose, to win the the White House, which is either achieved or it isn't in relatively short time. During the campaign, as neither candidate has ever been president before, they must impersonate a president, look "presidential", but after they win they are basically left to run an organization, the government of the United States, which has been there ticking for well over 200 years. This is a very different kettle of fish.

The objective of nearly everyone of executive responsibility in the campaign organization, from the candidate on down, is a job in government. The idealistic young people ringing doorbells may be doing it out of pure and noble motives, but everybody above them expects to be rewarded for their work.

Once they have the job in government all of them are thinking about their next job. First of all the candidate who is thinking about getting reelected. Most of the others including those of cabinet rank are thinking about their future in the private sector, where their stint in government will open doors to great boardrooms, law firms, think tanks and consultancies and TV punditry... not to mention (shudder) lobbies.

All these people are out for themselves and handling them, manipulating them, rewarding them and punishing them, using them without being used is not something that I can see Obama ever having had to do before, at least on a large scale. What he has done is too look and sound like a president. He has never been defeated*, he has never had to "find out who his real friends were." And I wonder if he has enough people around him of proven, bench tested, through thick and thin loyalty, to get him through the first couple of years.

*Update. It has been brought to my attention that Obama lost a race for Congress in 2001. In fact this just underlines what I am saying: since the beginning of his career Obama has done nothing but run in races, never stand still and manage anything at all. As to campaign skills indicating presidential ability, George W. Bush is a fantastic campaigner.

Running the White House is like plowing a field with a team of chimpanzees. Even someone with the skills and experience of Bill Clinton struggled horribly in his first year and those were much better times than today.

When Obama hadn't yet decided to run, I remember Andrew Young advising him against it saying that he was too young to have acquired a large enough group of trusted collaborators to pad him and protect him, a real mafia.

That, in my opinion is his Achilles heel.

I think it is of utmost importance for Obama to tell the nation who he will appoint to his cabinet if elected and especially interesting, in my opinion, will be who he chooses as his chief of staff. Of course, keeping everyone on tenterhooks to see who get the juicy plums is part of running the campaign. The disappointed, who will outnumber the pleased might not row so hard if they knew they were not among the chosen. DS


RC said...

Obama did lose his first race in Chicago, David. However, your point is well taken, but you undermine it by noting that Eisenhower and Clinton had a rough time too. And the sad reality is that Bush ran some great campaigns {or he had rove doing that} but where did that get us? I actually think that Obama is very sharp and calculating, will figure it out pretty quickly, will have his successes and failures as they all do, but he has managed aspects of this campaign, and did figure out how to motivate community activity, which is not all that easy. His big challenge isn't going to be managing, it is going to be managing with virtually no funding. BTW, his chief of staff will almost certainly be the campaign manager.

roksob said...

You suggested that "He has never been defeated, he has never had to "find out who his real friends were." "
Did he not lose his bid for the US House of Representatives in 2000?

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

True, but that was very early on. When you say "the year 2000", you are talking about a very short time ago. Obama has literally come out of nowhere.